Astonishing performance of complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet music, plus a Schumann allusion

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Schumann: Carnaval (four scenes arranged by Ravel)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – complete ballet score

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 August, 7:30 pm

Orchestra Wellington continued its 2017 series theme that focuses on the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the genius behind the Ballets Russes which changed the face of ballet before the First World War, and also impacted on most of the other arts. For he employed the most gifted choreographers, composers, dancers and designers, of the age, and inspired them to produce work that would radically enrich and rejuvenate, even revolutionise the arts generally. One of the greatest ballets inspired by Diaghilev was Daphnis et Chloé; and the orchestra must have faced the necessity of performing it with trepidation.

But we began with an arrangement of Schumann’s Carnaval. What’s the link with Diaghilev?

Carnaval is a bit of an oddity, for it was first used, at Fokine’s initiative, in a collaborative orchestration by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Lyadov, and Tcherepnin for the Ballets Russes in 1910. So it is curious that in 1914 Nijinsky asked Ravel to do another arrangement of Carnaval, this time for a London season; a Ravel arrangement was inspired no doubt by the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, the year before Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps.  Most of Ravel’s score is lost and only four parts are extant: Preamble – German waltz – Paganini – March of the ‘Davidsbündler’ against the Philistines. So it was a minor work in the Ballets Russes story, but it acted as a sort of overture to this concert.

It is hard for me to adopt an objective feeling towards an orchestration of music that seems so utterly, quintessentially for the piano and which I’ve loved in that form for hundreds of years. Clearly, the orchestra decided to include it, as Marc Taddei explained, because Schumann’s piano concerto was scheduled in the first half, and the idea of some kind of link was attractive.

So, it’s essentially a scrap, a remnant in which there is not enough time to become much engaged by the sort of delightful, eccentric magic that a performance of the entire 20 pieces of the original creates, making emotional and artistic sense of the complete score.

I couldn’t avoid the feeling that it presented the orchestra with an insuperable task, to ingest the music, firstly to overcome resistance to sounds not from a piano, and to be persuaded that Ravel himself was convinced by it. Though whimsy, children’s make-believe, a chimerical world, the exotic, are common to both Schumann and Ravel, I have the feeling that they imagined them in quite different ways.

So I was not surprised to find in the scoring little that I’d have ascribed to Ravel in a blind-fold test.

Schumann Piano Concerto
The Piano Concerto was an entirely different matter: it was among my first LP purchases as a Schumann-enraptured teenager; but it’s a long time since I’ve heard a live performance. Adding the visual element to the music, I found myself noting aspects of the score that spoke of a composer not as much at ease with an orchestra as with his piano (a very familiar view which I decided was unhelpful). My attention nevertheless, was largely on the beautifully lyrical piano writing and the sympathetic, unostentatious playing by Stephen de Pledge which (in spite of blemishes here and there) soon took my attention away from the rather traditional orchestral score. Though very different in character, the reputation of Schumann’s concerto a little like that of Chopin’s two concertos: one disparages the orchestration. However, De Pledge’s playing, and particularly his cadenza that was musical rather than flashy, were enough to draw applause at the end of the first movement; that might also have indicated large numbers of the audience fairly new to classical music – one of the positive achievements of Orchestra Wellington’s policies.

The little encore was, appropriately, from CarnavalChiarina, a portrait of Schumann’s fiancée and future wife, Clara Wieck.

Daphnis et Chloé
The main purpose of the evening was the rare performance of, not the more familiar suites that Ravel himself took from the work, but the whole nearly hour-long ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, complete with chorus.

The huge array of instrumentalists (over 80) and the 100-strong Orpheus Choir could not been a more striking contrast to the music before the interval. These 70 years had led to music that was as different as Matisse and Braque are from Ingres and Delacroix.

Though it is in three parts or Tableaux – not, formally speaking or conspicuously in ‘Acts’, one does not notice the sort of contrasted movements that characterise traditional classical music.  The overwhelming impression is of organic growth, through a series of evolutionary mood changes and a story that moves to and fro, in and out of focus. Thus there is no point in trying to point to particular episodes as ‘effective’ or ‘unfocused’ or ‘particularly arresting’, in the way a critic often feels obliged to do. What do tend to stand out, to sound familiar, are naturally enough the parts that form the two suites that Ravel compiled, which include the Nocturne, Interlude and Danse-guerrière; and Lever de jour, Pantomime, and Danse générale, mostly from Tableau III.

Even though the impact on the listener is so overwhelming that there’s little chance to attend to details of thematic evolution, of the use and significance of contrasting keys, one has to take as read the fact that its success in maintaining rapt attention, and perhaps a longing for it to continue for another half hour, is due to those inconspicuous compositional secrets.

Though there’s no question about the singular brilliance and emotional power of the ballet, as music, there is an old-fashioned idea that the best test of the real depth of music’s originality and genius, lies in its likely impact if it could be heard without the trappings, regalia, colours and jewellery that adorns it. Would the music, stripped of its gaudy, overwhelming orchestration, reveal weakness in invention, in structure, in the unfolding of a musical narrative; would it remain engrossing if reduced to a piano score? Might it emerge featureless and drab? Who knows?

Of course, that’s as nonsensical as looking at a Turner or a Monet and asking that it be judged in a black and white reproduction. So the flamboyant and luxurious orchestration was an essential element, a major attraction, achieved through an orchestra of Mahlerian or Straussian size, and a great choir. And to think that a merely part-time orchestra, though overflowing with experienced professional musicians, both permanent and as frequent guests, had the temerity to take on one of the most famous, most challenging, sometimes acknowledged as the greatest, orchestral masterpieces of the 20th century. Not only were the wind sections enhanced with relatively infrequent instruments like bass clarinet, E flat clarinet, alto flute, but there were two harps and nine players lined up behind timpani and percussion, more than I can recall at any previous concert. Just for the record, percussion (taken from details in Wikipedia) were snare drum, bass drum, field drum, tambourine, castanets, crotales, cymbals, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, wind machine, tam-tam and triangle.

Then there’s the wordless choral element, present throughout most of its length: music that to some extent, is rather like what I described above: dense in complex harmony but sonically uniform. Learning the choral parts was probably more challenging than it would have been with conventional word setting where memory of words and music are inter-dependent and mutually supportive; and the choir’s performance sounded as near faultless as I imagine it gets (particularly conspicuous in the impressive passage without accompaniment). If diction was never an issue, the sheer energy and incisiveness of the singing, and the incessant demands on singers spoke of thorough rehearsal and dedication under their conductor, Brent Stewart (who was not named in the programme but singled out at the end).

This was the most courageous and momentous enterprise of Orchestra Wellington’s entire 2017 season, and perhaps one of the orchestra’s all time finest hours; it was mainly a tribute to conductor Marc Taddei, for its conception, inspiration and leadership that carried it through to a performance of astonishing dramatic and musical subtlety, insight and sheer splendour.


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