Tag Archives: Ravel

Steven Osborne @ 50

STEVEN OSBORNE / 50th Birthday Concert
Wigmore Hall, London

Current circumstances prevent friends gathering for a major birthday bash; but there’s a way round it if you happen to be a highly-respected solo pianist and your close friends also warrant a place among today’s classical music elite. 

Thus Steven Osborne and friends were the starry concert party last Friday in an audience-less 50th birthday bash for the Scots pianist, forming part of the Wigmore Hall’s excellent live-streamed concert series, and featuring music chosen by Osborne himself. The outcome was a warm-hearted feast of Schubert and Ravel.

The friends – if you’ve followed Osborne in the many brilliant collaborations he has enjoyed over and above his international solo career – were personally chosen and predictably so: pianist Paul Lewis, the other half of a recently-released duo album with Osborne, the soprano Ailish Tynan, violinist Alina Ibragimova, Lewis’ cellist wife Bjørg Lewis, and Osborne’s own wife, clarinettist Jean Johnson. Their socially-distanced presence was a sequence of duo and trio combinations. 

Osborne’s single solo contribution came in the magically impressionistic sonorities of La Vallée des Cloches from Ravel’s 1904-5 suite Miroirs, which he introduced as “an aperitif” to the same composer’s Piano Trio in A minor – a typically modest touch; a typically breathtaking performance.

As for the Piano Trio – the personally chosen favourite around which Osborne planned the rest of his programme – its homogenous warmth summed up the extraordinary musical symbiosis that had thus far distinguished an evening beginning with the intimate salon charm of Schubert’s The Death and the Maiden (Osborne, Johnson and Tynan relishing – as we all are at the moment – the ultimate anticipation of Spring), and the Fantasie in F Minor for piano duo. 

In the latter, Osborne and a masked Paul Lewis went for the Covid-safe option of two separate pianos rather than the one-piano-four-hands Schubert intended, but the outcome was one of singular entrancement, an interaction of instant and instinctive ideas, and never once a suggestion that either pianist was going it alone. 

But it was that final Ravel which summed up the true nature of this celebration. It was not about noisy prima donna voices showing off among themselves, but rather a cosy respect for the music that defines their lives. The Trio featured the lustrously tasteful violin playing of Ibragimova alongside the equally amenable Bjørg Lewis and Osborne, all with personal flavourings to offer, but always with the common goal of respecting Ravel’s unmatchable ear for instrumental colour.

The story goes that Ravel picked up the opening theme of the Piano Trio from watching ice cream vendors dancing a fandango on the Basque coast. That’s as riotous as this exquisitely tasteful birthday celebration got. No encore, no histrionics, just a quiet recognition by some fine musicians that they were able to share a good friend’s special moment together. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch at www.wigmore-hall.org.uk

VOPERA: L’enfant et les sortileges

London Philharmonic Orchestra

It has become a platitude to enthuse about how creatively artists have responded to the restrictions on their livelihood brought about the pandemic, but it is nonetheless undeniable. However, this production of Ravel’s short opera, a modernist parable to a libretto by Colette brought vibrantly up-to-date, raises the bar to new heights.

Director Rachael Hewer – with the help of somewhere around 100 other people – has made a version of a work that is a musical delight, if very much of its time in other ways, into a profound commentary on our times, at the end of which you may well find yourself choking back tears.

Objectively, it is an astonishing technical achievement. All the singers – and they range from well-known names (Karen Cargill is Maman) to youngsters in the early stages of their careers – recorded and filmed their parts at home, using the technology to hand. The 27 members of the LPO recorded the music in socially-distanced conditions, playing a reduced orchestration made by conductor Lee Reynolds.

Hewer and her technical team have taken the faces of their cast and chorus and put them into the animated world in which the production takes place, as seen from the perspective of the titular child, sung by Emily Edmonds and winningly performed on-screen by Amelie Turnage. On the bones of Colette’s French text, given fresh translation in subtitles by Hewer herself, much contemporary context is happily applied: the girl is unhappily home-schooling during lockdown, and the fantasy world she enters, through the screen of her laptop, includes a hospital ward with all the necessary PPE, a yoga class in the gym, a rolling news broadcast with subtitles becoming the headlines ticker-taping along the foot of the screen, and a Zoom meeting for the Dance of the Frogs, with all the now-familiar icons hand-drawn.

It is hard to believe that a full orchestra would serve Ravel’s highly-original score, with its elements of Broadway, cabaret and operetta, any better than the LPO musicians do here, and the singing is of a uniformly high standard, with brilliant solo turns (stratospheric stuff from Sarah Hayashi as The Fire) as well as the quite remarkable choral combination, given the way it came about.

Within those restrictions too, there is also some fine facial acting – Marcus Farnsworth’s child-hating armchair an early highlight, and Shuna Scott Sendall an animated gym-bunny cat.

Familiar London locations crop up in the animated world, but the film begins in a black and white version of the child’s domestic home, and ends, in glorious technicolour, in the world everyone involved wants to get back to, as a patchwork of gilded interiors of opera houses around the world fills the screen. All are empty, of course, with a single “ghost light” left burning.

To the closing choral lament, the animated characters begin to fill up the stalls, and L’enfant has the last word as she returns “home”, singing: “Maman!” It is at this point that strong men may well be reaching for their pocket square. Like I did.

Available on YouTube until December 16.
Keith Bruce

SCO / Ravel, Debussy & Milhaud

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Thursday digital chamber music series just gets better and better. This latest one – the first in its extended Autumn tranche of concerts – threw in a whole lot of jazz influence voiced via the titillating early 20th century French musical inflexions of Ravel, Debussy and Milhaud. Nothing beats a dose of regenerated blues for shaking off the pandemic gloom, especially in performances as gripping as these.

Ravel’s 1927 Violin Sonata featured a notable star from last week, SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska, this time in duo partnership with Edinburgh pianist Peter Evans. She cuts a charismatically unpretentious presence on stage, authoritative yet compliant, incisive in gesture but eliciting a natural expressive warmth. The dissonant pokes of humour that gently infiltrate the silken fluidity and filigree detail of the opening movement did so with infectious charm.

Then a playful Blues, a beguiling central movement whose woozy lyricism vies with antagonistic syncopations. Wloszczowska and Evans engaged fully in its whimsy and the saucy dialogue that ultimately achieves its seductive purpose, before gifting the sonata’s final skittish moto perpetuo with all the inexorable fervour its kinetic insistence invites.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata seemed the perfect complement with which to follow, its opening rhetoric mindful in establishing an intuitive but exhilarating stream of thought, which SCO principal cellist Philip Higham expressed with crafted, glowing intensity. Once again, Evans was an inspiring collaborator, receptive to Higham’s architectural vision and purposeful in initiating those restless interruptions that breath fire into Debussy’s logical narrative and the quicksilver charm that enlivens the closing moment.

In many respects, the piano quintet version of Darius Milhaud’s 1920s’ ballet score La Creation du Monde is inevitably more high class drawing room in character than the raunchy Harlem-style jazz club textures evoked by the original 17-instrument line-up. But there is a certain ironic charm in the way its refined rescoring establishes a sort of perverse decadence.

With violinist Kama Kawashima and violist Felix Tanner now completing the ensemble, and in a performance driven by a combination of sultry sensuality and raw rhythmic drive, the realisation of its risqué primitivism was palpable and profound. Whether in the biting aggression of the Fugue, the steamy laid-back ecstasy of the Romance, the terse rhythmic menagerie that defines the short Scherzo, or the whimsical gamesmanship of the Finale, this was a cracking conclusion to a quirky programme.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.sco.org.uk

Image: SCO guest leader Maria Wloszczowska