Britten and Ravel perfection with Julia Bullock, the Philharmonia and Salonen

The Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen performing Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations with soprano Julia Bullock in the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. © Mark Allan

Following their livestream series inauguration on Monday, the Philharmonia Orchestra returned to their Royal Festival Hall home on Thursday, with their Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium. Teaming up with soprano Julia Bullock, the orchestra and Salonen delivered a superlative evening of surreal fantasy of Maurice Ravel and Benjamin Britten

One of the most extraordinary Ravel conductors of our time, Salonen opened and closed the evening with two pristine scores from the composer’s dazzling oeuvre, both based on piano originals and reworked for more or less classical orchestra. 

The six-and-a-half-minute Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899/1909) is a small gem of immense beauty, a stylized, slow court dance, clad in the most sublime sonorities imaginable. In its orchestral guise, the Pavane was premiered in Manchester in 1911, with Sir Henry Wood conducting.    

Both the piano original and the orchestral version became immensely successful, well-loved by audiences and musicians alike. Gabriel Fauré loved the piano score ”immeasurably” and the press called the orchestrated Pavane ”most beautiful novelty”upon the Manchester premiere. Reacting to its popularity, Ravel himself adopted more critical approach to his own score, attributing Pavane’s success to its ”highly remarkable interpretations”.  

Although not a virtuoso piece, Pavane’s subtle simplicity calls forth an orchestra (and a conductor) with utmost sensibility for nuanced sonority and the finest detail. With Salonen, the Philharmonia gave a translucent performance, clad in delicate colours. Beautifully paced, the music was unraveled in gentle, dream-like manner, to a touching effect. 

Benjamin Britten’s song cycle for soprano and string orchestra Les Illuminations, Op. 18(1939) is to be counted among the most inspired twentieth century vocal masterpieces. Cast in nine sections and lasting c. twenty minutes, Les Illuminations is based on Arthur Rimbaud’s eponymous collection, written in 1872-73. 

Although often performed in its tenor ossia, Britten originally conceived Les Illuminations for the soprano voice. The score is dedicated to Sophie Wyss, who sang the world premiere at the Aeolian Hall in January 1940. The soprano original was also heard in the Philharmonia concert, with Julia Bullock as soloist. 

Bullock and Salonen first performed the score together with the San Francisco Symphony last February; a collaboration endorsed by audiences and critics alike. The experience was evidently mutually inspiring for the artists themselves also, resulting in Thursday’s repeat performance at the Royal Festival Hall, followed by two live audience outings at Snape Matings on Friday. 

In addition, when interviewed in June, Salonen spoke about an orchestral song cycle he is currently writing for Bullock. Based on Thursday’s performance of the Britten, these two artists share a truly wonderful musical partnership. 

”I alone hold the key to this savage parade”, the soloist proclaims in the short opening section. Titled Fanfares, the music begins with signal-like interjections from the first violins and violas, supported by a low-strings tremolo pedal point, colored by the second violins. Finally the voice enters, chanting the key mantra. 

Soprano Julia Bullock and the Philharmonia conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen performing Les Illuminations in the Royal Festival Hall. © Mark Allan

In the course of Les Illuminations, the opening passage recurs twice, first as an intermezzo, then as a bridge between the two last sections. Around the motto line, a series of surreal images revolves, in the guise of fantastic tableaux, where dreamy vistas become interwoven with glimpses of nightmares.  

Britten’s score is abundant in imagery, with ravishing word-painting and exquisite mood-setting casting an irresistible spell over the listener. The sections flow into each other with their captivating surreal logic, to an absolutely enchanting effect. In the course of Les Illuminations, time itself becomes transformed into a paradox; all eternity condensed into a fleeting moment.

Although there is only one soloist, the text contains several voices, or personalities, reflected by the vocal line and the orchestral texture. Ethereally spare at times and buzzing with activity at others, Britten’s string orchestra scoring is rooted in the most colourful instrumental dramaturgy. 

Bearing witness to the savage parade, the vocal line conveys a multitude of emotions and imagery, filled with minutiae detail and yielding to an astounding musical entity. 

With the Philharmonia and Salonen, Bullock delivered the most wonderful performance of Britten’s compelling sonic imagery. One was simply enraptured by her detailed characterization and seemingly endless vocal imagination. Each section and each verse carried a powerful meaning, both musical and psychological. 

Salonen and the Philharmonia strings lived and breathed with their soloist to the smallest detail, supporting the solo line with a richly varied soundscape. Speechless after the outstanding performance, one was profoundly moved and filled with gratitude.  

Closing the evening, Salonen and the orchestra plunged into the sensuous fairy-tale realm of another Ravel masterpiece, the ballet Ma mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911-12). Begun as a five-movement suite for two pianos, subtitled as cinq pièces enfantines, the music was later adapted for orchestra by the composer. 

In addition to the orchestral suite, Ravel reworked the music into a continuous ballet score, adding four interludes, a prelude and an extra first scene. The thirty-minute ballet version is perhaps the most perfect of all, with its vivid narrative and alluring orchestral palette. 

Scored for duple woodwind and horns, percussion, keyboards, harp and strings, a series of tableaux from iconic fairy-tales is evoked into splendid music. There is no clear-cut narrative. Rather, the score reflects certain aspects and associations from its source tales, such as the Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast.  

Ravel’s instrumental invention is at its most brilliant within the six scenes and their brief but ever-enchanting lead-ins, adding up to a score of ethereal beauty and absorbing dramaturgy. The score calls for a virtuoso orchestra, with refined sensitivity and heightened expressivity. 

Salonen conducting the Philharmonia in Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye in the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. © Mark Allan

With Salonen at the helm, the Philharmonia gave a tremendous account of Ma mère l’Oye, conveying Ravel’s score with perfection, to the smallest detail. Awash with colour, the music glimmered with its full timbral spectrum, to a ravishing effect. 

Embedded with gorgeous instrumental solos, the orchestral fabric was brought to life with  admirable mastery by the incomparable Philharmonia players. Be it the soaring flute lines or the deepest bass clarinet grunts, along the glistening celesta and scintillant solo strings, the orchestral texture was ever richly detailed and luminously transparent. 

With the instrumental lines shining in splendour and magic, the Philharmonia and Salonen performance of Ma mère l’Oye was truly a remarkable one, bringing the wondrous evening came to its fulfilling close. 

Celebrating the outstanding artistry of the 75-year-old Philharmonia, this week’s magnificent concerts with Salonen and Principal Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali have been the most life-affirming events imaginable during these testing times.

As the UK is facing another lockdown period, the next Philharmonia events will be more than eagerly awaited.  

Philharmonia Orchersta

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Julia Bullock, soprano

Maurice Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899/1909) for small orchestra 

Benjamin Britten: Les Illuminations, Op. 18 (1939) for soprano and string orchestra

Maurice Ravel: Ma mère l’Oye (1908-10/1911-12) – ballet 

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London (Idagio livestream)

Thursday 29 October 2020, 7.30 pm 

© Jari Kallio

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