More of the Ecstasy & None Of The Agony

In Classical Music, Review on February 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Review – “Reflections On Debussy”
Kathryn Stott, Yan Pascal Tortelier, BBC Philharmonic
Bridgewater Hall (17 February 2012)

Part of the BBC Philharmonic’s Debussy season the programme of the concert was based on, according to the programme, around the concept of ‘orchestral fantasias’.

As well as Debussy’s Prélude à L’après d’un Faune and his Fantaisie featuring Kathryn Stott, the programme included Vaughan-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.

But while the evening may have been based on orchestral fanastias, for me it was an evening full of wonderful sonorities and glorious playing by the BBC Philharmonic under their Conductor Emeritus, Yan Pascal Tortelier.

As I have mentioned before, I believe that the BBC Philharmonic are the finest BBC orchestra at the moment if not the finest orchestra in the UK. It is always a pleasure to travel to Manchester and on this occasion I was not completely disappointed.

The concert opened with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Tortelier’s handling of the opening chord – like a breath of sound – was marvellous and immediately evoked – for me at least – the sense of mystery with which this piece is imbued. The smaller ensemble was placed in the circle above the orchestra enhanced the sonorities that Tortelier created during the piece and throughout the BBC Philharmonic and conductor demonstrated a masterful control of speed and dynamic range. So often I have heard this piece performed with cool indifference but for Yan Pascal and his players this was an English Renaissance psalm tune that inspired passion and fervour. It was simply beautiful.

The following two pieces were both by Debussy and – for different reasons – were not as compelling as either the opening piece of the Scriabin that followed them.

Kathyrn Stott is an amazing player. Intelligent, nimble and fleet with incredible technique it is a shame that – in my opinion – she was let down by the music itself. Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra hints at so much and delivers very little. There are moments that hint at later Debussy and for me it seemed almost a testing ground for the orchestral palette of colours he was to master later in life. Indeed I did sit there – having read the programme – and wonder if Debussy had returned to it later in life how he may have changed it. But Ms Stott, the orchestra and Tortelier gave a convincing account and at times there were distinct echoes of Gershwin in the sharp handling of the orchestra textures.

Tortelier’s interpretation of Prélude à L’après d’un Faune was, for me, a disappointing performance. The playing was exemplary, finely pointed with great attention to both detail and dynamics, but it lacked a sense of languor and sensuality. At slightly too fast a tempo, the luxuriant phrasing and delicate nuances in Debussy’s music weren’t given the opportunity to breathe sufficiently to create the heady atmosphere and reverie I associate with the piece. However I couldn’t fault the playing.

However all was forgotten with the BBC Philharmonic and Tortelier’s masterful performance of Scriabin’s unrealised fourth symphony, The Poem of Ecstasy. Listening to some audience members in the interval it was clear that this was not the piece that they had come to hear. Scriabin conjures up an interesting reaction even in the most die-hard classical music enthusiasts. His hard-to-understand-even-digest philosophical ideas often put people off from the start and many are put off by the perceived enormity and scale of his music.

I hope the electric performance of last night’s The Poem of Ecstasy will convert more than a few people in the audience or at least make them consider giving Alexander Scriabin another try.

The players and conductor dug deep to deliver a performance that had everything – sumptuous playing, fine attention to the smallest detail in Scriabin’s development of motifs, and the widest range of dynamic control that reminded me of their opening Mahler concert. And Tortelier’s handling of the orchestra, managing the swerving tempos and radical changes in mood and texture were highlighted by his control of the three momentary silences that punctuate the piece. As opposed to other performances and recordings of this work that I have heard, Tortelier’s brisk insistent tempo gave the entire performance a real sense of physicality, almost of desperation. And hats off to the exemplary playing of the brass section and, in particular, the trumpet playing of Section Principal Jamie Prophet.

So all in all another marvellous concert by the BBC Philharmonic. Superb playing under a great conductor.

I see Juanjo Mena is down to conduct the final two concerts in the “Reflections” series and look forward to returning to Manchester for more playing of the highest standard.


Let me know what you think ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective


Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera

%d bloggers like this: