Nigel Jarrett enjoyed a night of Spanish inspired music at St David’s Hall with BBC NOW’s production: Viva España.
It takes a musician of Angela Hewitt’s authority to reveal how a piece of music routinely considered novel is in fact compelling. Novelty is a diversion, but there’s nothing about Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand that warrants dismissal. It’s a masterpiece of discrete elements brought together in an exercise of inspiration and mega-concentration. It’s not just that it was written for a musician, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the Great War, but that it never defers to incapacity, not least in its convincing simulacrum of a two-fisted approach, one not restricted to the lower depths of the keyboard as might be expected. Moreover, it has two long solo passages for what is simply one-handed virtuosity. Not the least virtue of that is the way it takes the orchestra with it, rather than waits for it to perform as a backstop, or presents the listener with a musical equivalent of impairment and self-sufficiency against the odds in the orchestra’s sudden loss. It’s also a piece that gladdens the heart, it’s main theme one of Ravel’s most stirring and its jazzy romp home joyously Stravinskian.
Hewitt, returning to St David’s following a still talked-about performance of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the hall’s piano, possessed the right combination of refinement and pizazz to make the most of this intriguing concerto. Ravel always strove to avoid over-statement in his pursuit of perfection, but here these concerns were ditched, though perhaps not as readily as conductor Jun Märkl’s sometimes raucous interpretation suggested. Ravel never threw caution to the wind but he sometimes kept it on a long lead. Luckily, Hewitt was in command. At least, Märkl took the trouble to keep an eye on where her dominion was taking everyone.
It might have been away from the concert’s Spanish theme, established at the start in Manuel de Falla’s Nights In the Gardens of Spain, in which Hewitt opened her evening’s account with a much more muted approach to the piano’s place in the musical scheme than the score required. She had her moments, having to subdue the applause that broke out prematurely at the end of the first of its three movements. (Like a lot of other so-called ‘popular’ concert pieces, this one isn’t that well-known.) Märkl was attuned to the work’s discriminating picture-making, its impressionism, which was given proper attention, despite the composer having asserted its expressiveness above its evocative qualities. But as well as nocturnal warmth and atmosphere, it’s as much to do with rhythm, as befits music emanating from Spain and albeit in this case beating almost beneath the surface.
Ravel, a Frenchman, was born close enough to Spain for its pulse and ambience to have affected him for life, not least in his Boléro, the controversial commission from Ida Rubinstein. Most orchestras love playing it for the score’s roll-call of solo instruments above the ostinato rat-tatata-tat delivered first by the snare drum and then transformed by a platoon of instruments supplied with just two themes. It’s a work sometimes played in the tempo of a funeral march, but never as a pursuit. Märkl’s speed was consistent and measured enough for the work’s greatest quality – the steady accumulation of new sounds by instruments in combination – to have made its mark. Boléro is often demeaned by critics as a potboiler, but in its repetition and shifting focus of interest it has begun to sound much more modern and prophetic.
In his first suite of music from The Three-Cornered Hat, Falla returned to the programme with colourful narrative rather than the vibe of exteriors, however cool and exotic. The orchestra performed it with the spirit in which it was conceived, first as pantomime and then as a two-act ballet. A lot of the activity is depicted by various instruments, singly and together, as embodying the personalities of the characters, not least the bassoon assuming the lustful swagger of El Corregidor (the magistrate) in his designs on the Miller’s wife, the molinera, prominent in her third movement fandango. Like a lot of ballet music with detailed action depicted in music, the listener either has to know the story’s twists or sit back and lament the absence of dancers. But it was all good fun, the conductor and orchestra enjoying it equally.
In Ibéria, the Spanish section of his orchestra suite Images, Debussy proved himself to be another Frenchman – Chabrier was also one – who doted on Spain. Unlike Ravel, whose proximity to the country was crucial, Debussy’s Spain, according to de Falla, was all in a head filled with Iberian literature, songs, and dances. Falla joked that Debussy had only ever been to San Sebastian, where he witnessed a bullfight. All this, Märkl and the orchestra took into account, relishing the gift of Spanish dance rhythms in the opening ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’, then the opportunities for textural creativity in ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ and its elevation above the level of cultural geography. High strings, celeste (Catherine Roe Williams) and harps (Ceri Wynne Jones and Rachael Jones) came into their own here. It was a smart move to place this music before the final Boléro, because its third movement, ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’, follows a similar course in its progress towards bright, fiesta-like animation involving an increase in volume, here insisted on for its own sake, and with fastened-on melodies from zippy pizzicato strings and high-pitched clarinets.
In truth, the programme was the musical equivalent of too much sun and sangria; if there ever was such a thing.
Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. He’s had two collections of short stories, a novel, and a collection of poetry published. A former daily newspaper journalist, he now reviews and writes for Wales Arts Review, Acumen poetry magazine, Jazz Journal, Slightly Foxed and many others. He lives in Monmouthshire and swims whenever he gets the chance.