Prom 10: Takemitsu, Hosokawa, Ravel, Debussy, Sarasate

Miyata, Suwanai, Orchestre National de Lyon/Märkl

Royal Albert Hall, 27 July 2009 4 stars

Mayumi MiyataThe theme of Prom 10 was cultural connections within music. Through the music of Sarasate, Bizet and Ravel, and Debussy, Takemitsu and Hosokawa, some of the fruitful creative allegiances, both real and imagined, between Spain and France, and France and the Far East, were considered.

The theme of connectivity through art, the journey and the distance met through the creative act, can sometimes get overplayed, but those unities are fundamental in these pieces. True acculturation is never possible, but the performances tonight, given by an on-form and attentive Orchestre National de Lyon under the careful direction of Jun Märkl, demonstrated how rewarding such journeys in sound have been in turning music outwards and around on itself, to being enlivened by a version of the other.

Takemitsu, an exemplum of such coalescent creativity through being a Japanese composer operating in a western tradition, worked particularly in an idiom (at least for most of his maturity) indebted to modern French conceptions of colour and sound poetics, conceptions which also tie into similar Japanese aesthetics. Two works of his were heard in this concert. The evening opened with his Ceremonial: An Autumn Ode, for sho (a Japanese mouth organ) and orchestra, and later we heard Green for full orchestra.

Both works have a dreamlike sumptuousness, an elegant sonic efflorescence that is compelling in its own non-forceful sort of way, though the music's steely and saturnine edge should not be ignored. It was Cermonial, though, that impressed the most. From the opening sho strains of soloist Mayumi Miyata, ondes-like sparkles given in shadow, to the dreamy overlaying of gleaming orchestra with Miyata (and with the searching pairs of winds dotted around the hall), and vice versa, with house lights turned up, the performance matched the haunted truths of the score with a sonorous profile rich in detail and refinement.

The tactile dreaminess of the performance carried over into Hosokawa’s Cloud and Light, for sho and orchestra (with no winds). Like the Takemitsu Cloud and Light uses the natural harmonies and colours of the sho to generate sympathetic textures in the supporting writing, though here the poetics are concerned even more with vapour and with transience, traits carefully drawn out in the alert and expressive leadership of Märkl. The French ensemble soared in the misty orchestral colours of the work, bringing a real idiomatic luxuriance to each of these timbre-driven pieces.

Debussy's Pagodes (orch. by Andre Caplet), from his triptych Estampes, does not signify the East in quite an explicit way as do the aforementioned, but his use of drawn out, languid harmonic rhythms which stretch over barlines, his modal inflections, and his delicate use of shifting colour across and within instrumental sections, all echo Javanese Gamelan techniques. The orchestration was dutiful and deliberate, the performance likewise. By the time we came to La Mer at the close of a very long program (three hours and two intervals), though, the combination of listener fatigue and ears spoilt with the bejewelled stillness of the preceding Hosokawa, prevented the sturdy and expansive leadership of Märkl from communicating the full power of this rolling, swirling score.

The 'Spanish' elements of the evening were as fascinating to experience as the Eastern ones. Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole was astonishing. It may appear on the surface to be a Spanish folly, but the score contains enough delirium, enough destabilisation of the Spanish symbols, to be considered as an original creative act. The Prélude à la nuit, with its erotic sliding motif that gets repeated and repeated amongst fractured narratives of growth, signals immediately the sort of ambiguous territory we are in. The later Habanera jumps wonderfully between wild juxtapositions and occlusions of double and triple time, whilst the closing Feria is a straight out sculpture in motion, never letting go of its enrapturing, teeming ensemble and rhythm. The performance was vivid and full of detail, particularly in the difficult phrasing required in the finale.

The same composer's Tzigane, apart from a rip-roaring opening cadenza from soloist Akiko Suwanai, used all those tricks of rhythm and delirium, but to much less fruitful ends. Suwanai had earlier guested in Sarasate's virtuosic retelling of some of the main themes from Carmen (whose Overture the orchestra gave in thanks for the thoroughly deserved warm reception they received at the end). The piece again felt somewhat diversionary, and the orchestra and soloist quite often ran out and away from each other in the mad jubilance of some of the thematic statements. Suwanai excelled in the difficult string writing, particularly with the high-lying transpositions and the many variations in bowing required, and the piece certainly charmed in its open mouthed and spirited tour through some of Bizet's cherishable music, but after the earlier Ravel, and the 'Eastern' pieces, it fell a little short. Amidst such an eclectic and persuasive programme, though, it would be churlish to criticise it too much.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Mayumi Miyata playing the sho

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