Monday 15 July 2013

Les Siecles at the Proms - revelations and panache

Les Siecles
The French period-instrument ensemble Les Siecles made their Proms debut last night, 14 July 2013, under their director Francois-Xavier Roth with a wide ranging programme of dance music from France, starting with Lully and Rameau, taking in Delibes and Massenet and finishing with Stravinsky. Having done an historically informed account of Stravinsky's Firebird Francois-Xavier Roth has now turned his attention to The Rite of Spring and the second half of the concert re-created version of the piece which was premiered in 1913 with Roth going back to Stravinsky's original autograph, as well as using the instruments of the era. It was a daring and challenging programme, requiring the players to use multiple instruments during the course of the concert, but the group brought it off with great panache.

At the beginning of the concert, the majority of players came on to the stage with two instruments, one for Lully and Rameau, and another for Delibes and Massenet. For the Lully and Rameau the wind stood, and Roth used a strong woodwind contingent (four each of oboes, bassoons and recorders). Roth himself directed using a large staff, just as Lully had done, indicating the tempos by tapping the staff on the podium. This was intrusive at first, but you soon got used to it!

They opened with the overture and three dances from Lully's Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Moliere and Lully's comedie-ballet which was premiered in 1670 in the presence of Louis XIV. The ensemble produced a richly sonorous sound, with a far more strongly textured middle to the string sound than we are used to in Handel. The three lively dance movements (Canaries, Deuxieme air pour les garcons tailleurs and Ceremonie pour les Turcs) all used quite a bit of percussion, tinkly cymbals in the first, a drum beat in the second and finally, the amazing jingling johnny (turkish crescent). Roth showed that Lully's orchestration was full of colours, for instance the final movement started with the fabulous dark chocolate sound of low strings and bassoons over percussion. The woodwind ensemble seemed to almost choreograph their movements so that they were a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to. Roth and his ensemble restored the richness and lyricism of Lully's writing, and certainly made me want to hear them in a complete work.

Next came a selection of dances from Rameau's Les Indes galantes which dated originally from 1735. The ensemble played seven movements, Entree des quatre Nations, Musette en Rondeau, Menuets 1 & 2 (all from the prologue), Rigaudons 1 & 2, Tamourins 1&2, Danse du grand Calumet de la paix (all from the first Entree Le Turc genereux), and finally the Chaconne from the final Entree Les Sauvages). For the first three movements, all beautifully elegant and graceful in style, far more flowing that Lully, Roth eschewed the staff and conducted. The Musette en Rondeau contained some beautiful solo moments from individual instruments.

For the delightfully perky Rigaudons and all the following, dance-based, movements Roth returned to using the staff. the Tambourins were drum-based, very lively and furious. The Danse du grand Calumet was very grand with lots of percussion and, delightfully, the jingling johnny was back. Finally, the Chaconne, which started very gracefully, but then Rameau brings in trumpets and timpani and alternates the two. Again we were treated to a very real recreation of a sound-world, with the ensemble giving poised but lively performances, the rhythms placed just so, yet seeming to have fun as well.

There was some moving around as the ensemble re-configured to play Delibes and Massenet, the orchestra taking on a more familiar form with double woodwind, four horns plus brass, and an increase in the size of the string ensemble. It was at this moment that the players changed their instruments. The horns were natural ones, and instead of trumpets there were the earlier cornets a pistons.

First came excerpts from Delibes' ballet Coppelia which was premiered in 1870. We were treated to the Entracte and Waltz, and Prelude and Mazurka. The orchestra produced a richer and subtler sound than we are used to in this music. With the strings less prominent (gut strings, lower tension and less vibrato) you got more affekt from the wind. The Prelude was wonderfully eerie including a passage for the four horns which mixed hand-stopped notes with open ones to magical effect. The Mazurka was quite fast, but wonderfully rich textured and surprisingly vigorous towards the end. This was a subtler and less effete Delibes.

The first half concluded with five movements from the ballet music which Massenet wrote in his opera Le Cid. All are very Spanish, though the titles (Castillane, Analouse, Aubade, Madrilene and Navarraise) do not refer to real Spanish dances. They opened with a lovely mellow oboe solo, developing into a very vigorous Spanish number complete with castanets.  The second movement had a beautiful moment for solo cello, oboe and flute, whilst the third is best known as the signature tune to a radio programme! More poised solos, this time from cor anglais, flute and harp in the fourth movement before the final one concluded with vigorous dash. Not great music, but it showed off the colours of the orchestra in beautiful fashion, giving us a better idea of the variety of Massenet's orchestration.

After the interval, the number of players on stage increased radically again, around 100 all together as Roth and Les Siecles re-created the sound of that first Rite of Spring. The edition used was based on Stravinsky's autograph. After the premiere the composer constantly tinkered with the work, re-notating some passages and re-writing others usually to make it easier for the players.

I do have some quibbles, so let's get those over with first. There were passages which sometimes sounded unconvincing, probably places where Stravinsky was right to revise the work. There were moments when the instruments did sound pushed to their limits, and you could argue for a modern instrument performance, but this was the effect that Stravinsky would have known. (Its the difference between playing Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata on a forte piano and on a modern concert grand).

Another area was that the sound was very clean, no portamento at all. We probably have a lot of work to do exploring this period stylistically and despite the revelations, have to admit that what we were hearing is only a start (bear in mind how many of the early 'authentic' performances of baroque music now sound stylised and old fashioned).

But my main concern was the sense that, throughout all the wildness, Roth's direction had a constant feeling of steady as she goes; the wildness was all in the sound quality and the articulation, we never felt the piece quite running away. In the closing pages I really wanted him to let go more; but perhaps that is me projecting what I hear in modern performances.

But set against that is the sheer brilliance and amazing sound of the orchestra. The balance between strings, wind and brass is shifted radically, and the woodwind has a far narrower, more edgy sound, as does the brass. During the Dance of the Earth at the end of part one, there was a moment when the woodwind played repeated chords, short notes which cut through the string texture like a knife in a way which does not happen in a modern band. The performance was full of these little revelations.

The famous opening was notable for the warm, walnut coloured tones of the bassoon and for the characterful sound of the bass-clarinet; throughout the sounds were less homogeneous than we are used to. The chords in the Auguries of Spring rasped more, and there was a nasty edge to the trumpets which was just right for the music. Throughout, the tutti sound has a far sharper edge to it.

The quiet moments in the Round-dances of Spring were incredibly finely detailed, and this carried over into the louder passages. I keep coming back to the way the sound was far less homogeneous. Part one built to a succession of amazing climaxes, each full of precise character.

The polytonal harmonies in the opening to part two were well realised, with great clarity to the harmonies and some mesmerising quiet moments. In the Glorification of the Chosen One the excitement came from the articulation rather than sheer volume or speed, with the stunning sound of the horn calls (quite unlike their more modern counterparts). It did not always feel quite desperate enough, but then I wondered what effect the limitations of the instruments themselves was having.

The ticking sound during the Ritual Action of the Ancestors was far more detailed, more subtle than I am used to so that the cor anglais and alto flute were able to play amazingly quietly and still be heard. It was the quiet moments which amazed as much as the loud ones. The final Sacrificial Dance only served to emphasise how different this sound world is, and how we need to hear it again.

The performance was an amazing achievement, with the players being technically brilliant. Much of Stravinsky's writing is tricky on modern instruments, and using early 20th century ones does not serve to make it easier. But Roth's ensemble displayed superb poise and skill. The resulting sound was a revelation. the ensemble have recorded Stravinsky's Firebird so I do hope that they are recording The Rite of Spring. But even more than that, wouldn't it be marvellous to see them perform it in the ballet's original home, the Theatre des Champs Elsyees, with one of the reconstructions of the original choreography!

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