American mezzo Susan Graham evoked a suitably sultry atmosphere in that most intoxicating of song cycles, Ravel’s Shhrezade.
With Yan Pascal Tortelier replacing Bernard Haitink on the podium this all-French programme positively exuded Gallic lan.
The concert began with a performance of Ravel’s ballet Ma mere l’oye, and although not published in the programme Totelier had brought his son with him to narrate the piece. This was only intermittently satisfactory, as the spoken dialogue was distracting and added little to the appreciation of the work, which to this listener’s ears is not one of Ravel’s strongest. Maybe without the narration the score would have come across with more vitality certainly both conductor and orchestra made a strong case for it, but I’m not convinced.
The temperature soared in the following item, Ravel’s luscious, erotic re-telling of the Shhrezade fable which received a dreamily-evocative performance from American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. She is peerless in this repertoire and from the hushed entrance ‘Asie, Asie, Asie’ in which each repetition of the word ‘Asie’ was coloured differently and more exotically each time it was evident that hers was going to be a superlative interpretation, as indeed it was. The climax of the first song ‘Je voudrais voir mourir d’amorir ou bien de haine’ was thrillingly voiced and suitably orgasmic. There was a warmth and radiance to ‘La flte enchante’ and the sense of resignation that Graham evoked in ‘L’indiffrent’ brought the cycle to its tranquil and achingly beautiful close. A stunning interpretation.
After the interval we were treated to more heady sensuality in a restrained yet wonderfully evocative performance of Debussy’s Prlude a l’aprs-midi d’un faune in which Adam Walker’s solo flute playing was quite simply superb. Pierre Boulez calls this work the first piece of modern music and in Tortelier’s conducting one could see why as he revelled in its shifting harmonies and daring chromaticism.
The concert concluded with a towering performance of La mer, with conductor and orchestra perfectly capturing the ebb and flow off this revelatory tone poem. All sections of the orchestra played as though their lives depended on it and the overall impact of the work was properly shattering.