BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, April 21 2015
Rebel: Les élémens – ‘Chaos’
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Milhaud: La creátion du monde
Ginastera: Popol Vuh
Conductor – Stefan Asbury
Soprano – Gweneth-Ann Jeffers
Piano – Zhang Zuo
Leafing through the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ large but dowdy current season brochure, it would be easy to miss that several concerts fall under a terrific series devised around the theme of creation. Saturday April 18 saw the successful world premiere of Mark Bowden’s A Violence of Gifts. This exciting and ambitious work, setting a taut, beautifully evocative libretto by the poet Owen Sheers, explores the scientific origins of light, matter and life. Alongside Holst’s The Planets, it was performed with charged dynamism by the combined forces of the orchestra, BBC National Chorus of Wales and soloists under conductor Martyn Brabbins (see Simon Rees’ review here). On May 8 – again, at St David’s Hall, conducted this time by Stephen Layton – there will be a performance of the extraordinary sacred work which inspired Bowden’s own creative impulse: Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation.
Sandwiched almost unnoticed in between these two, major events, was an afternoon concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall on April 21, which offered an enticing view of creation myths from Africa, Mesoamerica, Scandinavia and Europe through the music of five composers spanning nearly 250 years. The opener could hardly have been more arresting than the wonderful ‘Chaos’ by Rebel. Not the punk rock you might imagine, but perhaps the baroque equivalent in the form of the first movement of Jean-Féry Rebel’s ballet, Les élémens (1737) – his last work, written with youthful vigour at the age of 70. Depicting the cosmic chaos from which the elements of fire, water, air and earth arose, the BBC NOW under Stefan Asbury tore into the opening chord – an astoundingly dissonant cluster for the time – and surged with relish through this audacious, stand-alone piece, which audiences of the day happily embraced.
Fast forward to the 20th century, when a new generation of French composers turned to African cultures and thence to black American jazz in their search for fresh sounds and ideas. The works which resulted were genuine in their homage – and socially progressive in their day. But it is also worth noting the wider irony implicit in the zest for so-called ‘primitivism’, which brought an oft-touted ‘exotic’ modernity to western art through the adoption, and sometimes pillaging, of others’ ancient and living traditions.
Darius Milhaud was one of the most inventive composers to incorporate jazz, polytonality and African-inspired rhythms within a strongly individual, coolly neo-classical style. His La creátion du monde of 1923 – like the Rebel and the Ginastera on this programme, also a ballet – was to prove highly influential, despite being branded by contemporary critics as ‘frivolous and more suitable for a restaurant or a dance hall than for the concert hall’, as Milhaud later put it. A pity, then, that Asbury’s interpretation had more clarity than character, with the fine BBC NOW players only occasionally shaking loose in this vibrant retelling of African creation folklore. Still, those flashes at least pointed towards the Harlem insouciance and swagger with which Milhaud interweaves a lyrical gravity and Stravinskian bite á la The Soldier’s Tale.
Clarity and rhythmic incision were also features of Ravel’s later-composed Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31), performed before the Milhaud on this occasion. But here, with the BBC NOW joined by the brilliant young soloist, Zhang Zuo, the bluesy inflections were pure delight, and buoyed by the ebullient orchestral colour for which Ravel is justly famous. Perhaps the composer’s adoption of jazz later in life was partly spurred by the rise of ‘Les six’, of which Milhaud was one, and which threatened to render the elder composer outdated. Whatever motivated his apparent style change, however, Ravel was sincere in praising his far more prolific compatriot’s ‘vastness of conception’. And audiences continue to be enthralled by this concerto’s dashing virtuoso swirl; by its crisp American blues and crystalline outer movements framing a languid paean to Basque and Iberian folk melody. Zuo’s touch proved as deft as her technique was quickfire – if somewhat lacking in depth at the Adagio assai. But this will doubtless come, and the absence of sentimentality was refreshing – both from her and from the orchestra, which matched her phrase for phrase and sparkling solo for solo (the cor anglais of Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer being a highlight).
The soprano soloist in Sibelius’s Luonnotar (1913), the redoubtable Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, had the more daunting task. It fell to her to convey through a tremendously difficult vocal line – sung in Finnish to boot – a strange and mysterious soundworld indeed. However, despite some uncertainty at high-tessitura entries, she proved in richly capable voice, amply supported by an orchestra whose Sibelius has grown in confident suppleness under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. This short, breathtaking work – part-orchestral song, part-tone poem, and composed between Sibelius’s groundbreaking 4th and 5th Symphonies – hovers at the magical edge of tonality. Oscillating between shades of light and dark, it relates with ethereal Nordic calm a creation story from the epic Kalevala concerning the lonely daughter of nature named in the title.
Dramatic contrasts were writ large in the final work of this imaginative programme: the rarely heard Popol Vuh (1982-3), or ‘People’s Book’ by the Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera. From Finland we were transported to Guatemala for a musical tale unfolding the sacred Mayan journey from pre-creation primal darkness to the eventual ‘Dawn of Humankind’. Cast in eight sections, Ginastera planned a ninth but died before he could finish it, leaving a work of great beauty and explosive power which is nonetheless complete in its own right.
Those who heard the Bowden on the 18th and admired his eloquent low sonorities would doubtless have been struck anew by Ginastera’s vivid use of subterranean brass and woodwind. The Argentine’s orchestral palette is dazzling, and such colour, coupled with an expressive range from sepulchral calm to pounding brutality, makes for a visceral live experience. Here, Asbury and orchestra delivered the highlight of the afternoon with a performance of great spirit and virtuosity.*
Yes, Popol Vuh wears its Stravinsky and Bartók influences on its sleeve – and I was reminded in some chamber sections of Roberto Gerhard’s Libra and other of the Catalan’s works. But originality is vastly overrated as a virtue it seems to me. If a piece works on its own terms as this one so joyously does, then who cares? From glissando timpani to ghostly strings and unbridled fanfares, with evocative rain-like effects balancing pizzicato against plocking percussion, this piece contains treasure that deserves to be shared more often.
* The concert is now available on BBC iPlayer and Asbury has recorded this work on Neos with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. Why not investigate too a more avant-garde approach to creation mythology, and an actual setting of words from the Popol Vuh: the mighty Ecuatorial by Edgar Varèse (1933).
Photo credit: design for the Green Wing Bird by Fernand Léger, 1923, left (© Bengt Häger, Swedish Ballet. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990). Drawing by Millicent Hodson turning the design into dance, right (© Millicent Hodson.) From a CCN Ballet de Lorraine recreation of the original Ballets Suédois production of La Création du Monde.