Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Fauning over the volume. l'Orchestre National de France, Prom 71, 7/9/10

What’s not to love about a programme including two of Debussy’s most famous works, Prelude a L’Apres midi d’un Faune and La Mer, alongside the 20th century’s most (in)famous ballet score, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)? There was certainly giddy expectation in the Albert Hall last night - musical devotees knowing exactly what they were about to receive.

Conducted by their (relatively) new music director, Daniele Gatti, l’Orchestre National de France were on stunning form (apart from an unseemly pile up by the brass section at the close of Dance of the Earth in Rite). Most distinctive perhaps was not the plangent sonorities of the fortissimi in La Mer and, of course, the Rite; but rather the exquisite, almost mystical, quietude that Gatti conjured from his 120-strong orchestra. It was this contrast, a kind of aural chiaroscuro between loud and soft, that gave these familiar pieces fresh mystery.

Perhaps it also comes from a particular kind of sensitivity of the predominantly French players to music that is such a part of their national culture? Sure, Stravinsky was Russian, yet what other piece of avant-garde music is more associated with Paris than this? There was that mythic riot in the Theatre Champs-Elysees at its premier on 29th May 1913.

Without these three works would 20th Century music have taken the adventurous course that it did? The breakdown in diatonic tonality towards dissonance and atonality, the shift from melody towards rhythm and the assertion of wind and brass over the violin’s orchestral dominance are all prefigured here.

But perhaps, more than any of this, these works taught us to listen with new ears.

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