Monday 16 March 2015

Original fire - Manuel de Falla at the Wigmore Hall

Nash Ensemble - © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Nash Ensemble - © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Ravel, Falla, Martin; Bernarda Fink, Nash Ensemble, Juanjo Mena; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 14 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Falla's original versions of his ballets, surrounded by music evoking Spain

The Nash Ensemble is coming to the end of its 50th anniversary season, and on Saturday 14 March 2015 the group gave two concerts at the Wigmore Hall. I missed the early evening celebration of contemporary works commissioned by the group from Huw Watkins, David Matthews and Michael Berkeley, but heard the evening concert when Argentinian mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink and flamenco guitarist Juan Martin joined an expanded Nash Ensemble, and conductor Juanjo Mena for a Spanish themed programme. The music of Manuel de Falla was the main focus of the evening with act 1 of El Corregidor y la Molinera (the original  version of The Three-Cornered Hat), Seven Spanish Folksongs and El Amor Brujo (in its original version), plus Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin and flamenco music by Juan Martin.

Bernarda Fink - photo Stefan Reichmann
Bernarda Fink - photo Stefan Reichmann
The concert was planned to start with the music of Turina, but in the event we were treated to a sparkling account of three movements from Maurice Ravel's suite Le Tombeau de Couperin played by Philippa Davies (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Richad Hosford (clarinet) Ursula Leveaux (bassoon) and Richard Watkins (horn). Ravel originally wrote the suite between 194 to 1917, emulating the French baroque tradition of tombeaux (keyboard suites) written in tribute to late colleagues, by writing a keyboard (piano) suite in memory of Francois Couperin, but with each movement dedicated to a friend who had died in the First World War. Ravel orchestrated four of the six movements, and it is in this orchestral form that the work became famous. Mason Jones (1919-2009) was the principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra and his arrangement for wind quintet was published in 1970. Based heavily on Ravel's orchestration (Jones's oboe part is identical to Ravel's first oboe part), Jones also drew on the piano score and orchestrated one of the movements that Ravel did not.

The players from the Nash Ensemble gave us three movements, Prelude: Vif, Menuet: Allegro moderato, Rigaudon:Assez vif. The opening prelude was fast and impulsive, led by the fluent oboe playing of Gareth Hulse, with all the others following. Marked Vif, this was very Vif indeed and the phrases tumbled over themselves but always with clarity and elegance. The minuet was beautifully shaped and balanced, with hints of wit in the playing. There was a lovely vital feel to the music of the Rigaudon, with a real sense of interaction between the players. The middle section was graceful with elegant oboe playing from Hulse.

Manuel de Falla's main musical training was in Spain, with composer, musicologist and folklorist Felipe Pedrell but Falla's move to Paris in 1907 (when he was 31) brought him into contact with Debussy, Ravel, Dukas and Stravinsky as well as the ballet impresario Diaghilev, and all would bring a degree of influence on Falla's music and technique (like his contemporary RVW, Paris gave his music a degree of French polish). Manuel de Falla's Seven Spanish Folksongs for voice and piano were written in 1914 as the result of a request from a Spanish singer in Paris, wanting material for a recital. Having tried one song, Falla was pleased enough to go on to create a group of seven. Unlike much of his folk-inspired music, he did use whole folk-songs in the the settings but wasn't above re-touching them.

Bernarda Fink sang them from memory, accompanied by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips. Fink sang with firm tones and was richly expressive and rather stylish. She has a strong lower register, but was not above lightening her tone and in the Falla songs she gave poised and flexible performances which were idiomatic but unhackneyed. The opening song El pano moruno was elegantly melancholy, whilst in Seguidilla murciana words simply tumbled out with a fiery delivery. Asturiana was sung with quiet intensity and her rich tone conveying a sense of infinite melancholy. In Jota, the piano playing from Simon Crawford-Phillips was particularly notable with a lovely rhythmic intensity and the pair made the song very infectious, with a smile at the end. The lullaby Nana was hauntingly beautiful and whilst apparently effortless was quietly intense with a highly coloured vocal line, whilst Cancion was simply a perky delight. The last song Polo was a highly vivid incantation, with a superb speed of repeated notes int he piano, but all hinting at deep pain. Fink's performance was always richly characterised and she brought a real sense of joy to the music.

The final work in the first half was the first act of the the work which became Manuel de Falla's ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. His pantomime El Corregidor y la Molinera was written in 1916 and premiered in Madrid in 1917. The ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev had come to Cadiz, where Falla was living, in 1916 whilst on tour and had been interested in the work. After the premiere Diaghilev wished to use it as a ballet, but for Diaghilev the composer expanded the orchestration and re-worked the piece. Act one had some cuts, to tighten the action, but major work was done to act two which had been quite perfunctory in the original. The performance by the Nash Ensemble was of act one of that first Madrid version, in its original scoring for flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, piano and strings (nine players), all conducted by Juanjo Mena, the chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.

Essentially we heard what was familiar music, but linked by unfamiliar passages and all in a tighter, more concentrated orchestration. The result had a  pungency which was very appealing. Mena and his forces clearly relished with vibrancy and the flexibility which they could bring to the piece. Speeds varied, and were both full of rubato and impulsive, this was large scale chamber music. There was a big sweep of sound, when necessary, from the strings but the balance with the wind was different and tangier. The result made a strong and appealing case for Falla's original.

After the interval, we had a different type of original as the flamenco guitarist Juan Martin played four of his own pieces. Linares - Taranta y Fandango, La Chispa - Allegrias d Cadiz, Evocacion - Zambra, La Feria - Rumba are all from Martin's own Andalucian Suites and use Martin's own original material in traditional forms. Martin's playing filled the Wigmore Hall, and all the pieces demonstrated the wonderful virtuosity and command of his instrument that he has, whether it was combining percussion effects with guitar, fluttering his hands across the strings at bewildering speed or combining multiple lines and drones. All were imbued with a feeling of Spain.

The final work in the programme was Falla's original version of El Amor Brujo This was written in 1915 for performance by a traditional gypsy dancer and singer. It is Falla's revised version which is the one which is best known. Again when revising it Falla expanded the orchestration, but this time he also radically revised the work moving the set pieces about and renaming some of the songs. What we know as the Ritual Fire Dance was originally called the Dance for the end of the day. Bernarda Fink joined the expanded Nash Ensemble conducted by Juanjo Mena.

If, for Falla's Seven Popular Songs Fink had lightened her voice, here she displayed her magnificent lower register singing with a fabulous primitive intensity. Falla's musical material for this piece remains as intoxicating as ever, and heard in the pungent scoring of the original the melodies made even more impact. Mena and his forces again relished the dynamism and vivid accents that the scoring brought to the music and clearly enjoyed the textures being created.

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