Jeux, Debussy’s quiet revolutionary, steals Orchestra Wellington’s show

Orchestra Wellington presents:
The Impresario – Concert 2

DEBUSSY – Jeux – poème dansé
MOZART – Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K.466
BRAHMS – Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor Op.15

Michael Houstoun (piano)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Friday July 7th, 2017

This was the second of Orchestra Wellington’s 2017 series of concerts containing works commissioned by the renowned impresario Serge Diaghilev for the dance company he had formed, the Ballets Russes, regarded by many performance historians as the most influential dance company of the 20th Century. It was the Ballets Russes company which, thanks to Diaghilev’s commissions, was to premiere three of Igor Stravinsky’s most famous ballets, the Firebird, Petroushka and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), along with numerous others in their 30-year history.

Another of the commissions was a work called Jeux (Games), written by Claude Debussy. At first the latter rejected the proposal after receiving Diaghilev’s scenario for the work – a game of tennis between two women and one man, involving lost balls, suggestions of amorous interactions and an aeroplane crash on the court (Diaghilev’s initial idea was for the dancers to be three young men – but he thought better of it). Debussy described it all as “ludicrous”, though when Diaghilev offered to double his fee for the work, the composer relented, on the condition that the concluding “aeroplane crash” idea be dropped! – he got his way, and the resulting work has come to be regarded by commentators as one of the century’s most significant and seminal pieces of music.

For a good while, though, the impact of Jeux on the musical world in general was overshadowed by the sensational premiere of another Diaghilev-inspired ballet only a fortnight later, that of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Unlike Le Sacre, Debussy’s Jeux produced no riot, no furore, no scandal of the stuff that legends are made of, but neither were there plaudits and rave reviews. In fact the music seemed scarcely to be noticed by the critics, who reserved their bemused reactions for dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography. Debussy himself had called his work “music without legs”, and was thus appalled by what he saw, derisively commenting, “…the man adds up demisemiquavers with his feet, and proves the results with his arms….it is ugly…” It was actually the first known ballet to be performed in contemporary dress, being actually announced by the Ballet Russes as a “plastic vindication of the man of 1913”.

Debussy at this time was suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him, so the commission was a timely one, providing him with a much-needed income, and engaging his sensibilities to an extent that even he was surprised at – he wrote “How was I able to forget the cares of this world, and manage to write music that is nevertheless joyous and alive with droll rhythms?” It took him a mere three weeks to write, and only the ending, with its hint of the suggestive, gave him difficulty – “…the music has to convey a rather risque situation – but of course, in a ballet, any hint of immorality escapes through the feet of the danseuse and ends in a pirouette….”

It took until the 1950s to be recognised as a masterpiece, and in the concert-hall rather than in the theatre. Though the score readily suggests each choreographic movement of the action – one critic reviewed a performance making full use of the tennis association, writing sentences like, “…a vulgar forehand drive from the string section is deftly turned by a mysterious lob from the solo flute……” – what is most striking about Jeux is its organically elusive quality, with each episode “growing” out of the other in an entirely spontaneous and unpredictable way – “every theme is the child of the one before” as one commentator put it. Debussy himself intended such a continuous renewal, what he called “a drawing together and separating of poles of attraction”, and constantly achieving new ways of balancing the same material. He wrote to a friend, “I would like to make something inorganic in appearance and yet well-ordered at its core” – and that seems to be the essence of Jeux.

I thought Marc Taddei’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance of the work miraculous and sure-footed, bringing all of the piece’s inherent characteristics to the fore – the mystery at the work’s beginning (mysterious, haunting whole-tone chords at the beginning, sounding like the passage of consciousness through magical portals into wondrous dream-like realms), the constant ebb-and flow of the rthythmic trajectories, the endlessly varying treatment of melodic fragments, and the kaleidoscopic shifts of colour and texture brought to us as the work unfolded. A friend said afterwards that he thought the performance wasn’t sufficiently “ravishing” – but he admitted he had heard Pierre Boulez conduct the work in London with the BBC Symphony! For my part I had recently played and listened to FOUR different versions from recordings, and found them all very different! Orchestra Wellington’s playing under Marc Taddei wasn’t quite the most warmly ravishing of those I heard, but the detailing was superb throughout, and the piece’s sensuality at times was given an edge which for me gave the music a tingling, vital quality.

To my ears, the Michael Fowler Centre acoustic doesn’t give much added warmth or body to the sounds made by orchestras, something which I thought was apparent during the programme’s other items as well. This relative leanness of sound suited the Mozart Concerto better than it did the Brahms work, both of which were played with exemplary clarity by the soloist, Michael Houstoun, and supported by incisive playing from the orchestra. I enjoyed the “attack” from the players – very “whiplash-like” in the MFC acoustic, giving the performance plenty of “edge”. It was an interesting idea to “bind” the two concerto performances by key and see what came of the treatment given D MInor by two different composers. Most obviously, both showed their classicist leanings, Brahms, writing sixty years after Mozart, being, of course, the “chosen one” of the conservatives in their struggle to uphold traditional principles against the onslaughts of the “new music” of the radicals of the nineteenth century, most prominently Liszt and Wagner.

In each composer’s concerto, there’s the same inherent D Minor darkness, reflecting in a shared “ambience” between the two works of sombre mood, of struggle, of gritty determination and of aspiring towards the light of resolution or victory over forces of darkness. Each uses the language of his time, so that there’s no mistaking which of the works are from what era – Mozart’s motivation in writing such a dark work remains unclear, and in any case his habit of writing his piano concerti in pairs often produced diametrically opposed emotional results (this one was written at roughly the same time as the bright and sunny C-Major work K.467, confounding any “biographical” revelations in either piece).

In Brahms’ case, however, the young composer’s accompanying personal circumstances definitely influenced the heartfelt character of HIS D Minor Concerto in more ways than one – a situation brought about by his champion, Robert Schumann. Originally the work was intended to be a symphony, and its composer encouraged in the venture by Schumann, until the latter was tragically committed to an asylum after an attempt at suicide. By way of maintaining his creative spirits in parallel with his continuing support for Schumann, his wife Clara and her children, Brahms first toyed with the idea of turning the failed symphony into a work for two pianos, but after considerable angsting, created what became this, his first Piano Concerto – but not a fashionable “virtuoso concerto” as a vehicle for star soloists! This sounded more like a symphony with piano obbligato – and what a piano part!

Michael Houstoun has performed this work in living memory at the Michael Fowler Centre with the NZSO, as part of a Brahms festival a number of years ago. Worthy though that performance was I had high hopes of the combination of Houstoun with Marc Taddei, whom I thought would give the orchestral contribution to the proceedings plenty of energy and dynamism and be more of a “match” for Houstoun’s pianism. In the event, I don’t think anybody could say that Orchestra Wellington didn’t bend collective backs, strain sinews and manipulate muscles to the nth degree to help bring off this work – it’s just that I felt the ensemble seemed ultimately to lack the numbers of strings to give the performance the sheer weight it needed in places throughout the work, given that the venue was, predictably, not much help in terms of orchestral warmth and amplitude.

What did surprise me was Marc Taddei’s slowish tempi throughout the concerto’s first movement – fine if one is conducting an orchestra with a full-strength complement of strings, and in an acoustic which gives something back to the musicians! – but here, the players sounded to my ears pushed to fill out their tones in order to properly saturate and sustain those bar-lines with sound. The result at times were tones that, from where I was sitting in the hall didn’t have enough heft for me, in certain places. In the past Taddei had invariably chosen quick tempi when conducting the classics (sometimes bordering on the excessive, but always with exciting results), but on this occasion asking for a truly big-boned maestoso in the first movement and a long-breathed treatment of the lines in the second movement seemed to me to put the players under a lot of pressure.

Where the combination of soloist and orchestra began to conflagrate as expected was during the third and final movement, after the brief fugato-like passage for strings and winds, and piano and orchestra had swung into the reprise of the opening theme. The exchanges between soloist and ensemble began generating more and more excitement, with the cadenza adding to the music’s resolve and the contrasting whimsical playfulness between the instruments (lovely work by the horns) suddenly bubbling over and releasing surges of energy which brought about a satisfyingly triumphal conclusion. In the Town Hall the impact of the whole would have been mightier, but here the musicians by sheer determination brought it all off for the finish and made even the MFC resonate with glad sounds!

So, roll on to the next Orchestra Wellington impresario concert (Saturday 5th August) – masked balls (Schumann) and Hellenic pastorales (Ravel) await our impatient pleasure!

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