Debussy, Mozart and Messiaen at St David’s Hall

The view from Tier 2 before the concert

After work (and a pint or two) on Friday evening I headed to St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 so you can listen to it on the iPlayer for a month.

Two of the four pieces on the programme were by Claude Debussy (abovel, to mark the centenary of his death which was 100 years ago today (on 25th March 1918).

The concert opened with Debussy’s Nocturnes and ended with La Mer , both works consisting of three movements for a large orchestra and showing the vivid chromaticism and lush orchestration that typifies so many of his compositions. The last movement of Nocturnes includes some wordless singing, which was performed beautifully by female singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat Major K. 595, with soloist Steven Osborne. This, Mozart’s last piano concerto, is a nice piece, well played by both pianist and (pared-down) orchestra but I felt it was a rather incongruous choice for this programme. It was probably chosen because it is in some sense a valedictory piece, but all it did for me in this concert was emphasize how much the harmonic vocabulary of music expanded between Mozart and Debussy, and left me feeling that the Mozart piece was rather trite in comparison.

After the wine break we heard a piece that was completely new to me, Les Offrandes Oubliées by Olivier Messiaen, a wonderfully expressive piece with wildly contrasting moods, clearly influenced by Debussy but with a distinctive voice all its own. Messiaen is one composer I definitely wish I knew more about.

After the superb La Mer which ended the published programme, something very unusual happened for a classical concert in the UK: there was an encore by the orchestra in the form of a dance by Debussy orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening and a fitting tribute to Claude Debussy, a composer who was both modernist and impressionist and whose influence on the development of music is incalculable.

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18 Responses to “Debussy, Mozart and Messiaen at St David’s Hall”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Mozart PC27 trite?? Words fail me!

    • telescoper Says:

      There is much less thematic invention in this work than is usual for Mozart. In fact there’s one little melodic figure that keeps coming back over and over again in a way I found quite tedious. I am of course a great admirer of Mozart, and there are some lovely passages in this piece, but I think this is him far from his best.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Of Mozart’s later major-key piano concertos I reckon it as good as 21 and 23. It was not knowingly a valediction on his part. My favourite is 24 in C minor, a piece Beethoven reckoned he couldn’t match. If he did, it was in his 3rd or 4th. The Emperor is too loud.

      • telescoper Says:

        According to the programme notes, much of Concerto No. 27 was written as early as 1788, and not in Mozart’s last year as has been assumed by many on the basis that was when it was first performed.

  2. I’ve had, from a chronological point of view, the opposite experience several times: a concert of several Baroque pieces, then something from the Classical, Romantic, or Modern period on the programme as well. Sometimes these pieces are still music, though not as good as Baroque music, and sometimes they are dreadful cacophony. It is always obvious to me what went downhill after about 1750.

    Don’t get me wrong; there is some good stuff after 1750, even leaving aside modern beat combos. For example, I recently attended a concert featuring Beethoven’s 9th symphony (interestingly, the musicians involved usually perform Baroque music), which is a very fine piece of music (though, at the end of the day, an obscure piece by Alessandro Scarlatti which I heard for the first time a year or so ago is actually better—not as popular, not as innovative, not as influential, but more fun to hear).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I reckon the golden era is roughly the 18th and 19th centuries. Too undeveloped before that, largely cacophanous after. Even if 20th century composers know things about composing that Mozart didn’t, it doesn’t follow that they use that knowledge well. Picasso had incredible technique but largely didn’t bother to use it in favour of drawings that could be done by kids after seeing a horror movie, and once said that it was important for an artist to get his public to accept the full truth of the artist’s lies. And once that has gone on for long enough, technique starts to go down the pan too.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think there’s been a `Golden Age’ either in music or in the arts generally. Each age has its masterpieces and its dross. That’s as true for the modern age as it is for the baroque era.

        It seems to me that the need to rebel against prevailing norms is one major spur for creativity. The music I like best is often that which is produced at a time of transition between forms, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like music that sits comfortably in the mainstream.

      • “I reckon the golden era is roughly the 18th and 19th centuries. Too undeveloped before that, largely cacophanous after.”

        While I usually agree with Anton regarding art, and generally agree here, there is a slight point of disagreement. 🙂

        While most 19th-century composers wrote “real music”, as opposed to something along the lines of Schönberg or Cage, say, I find it much less attractive than Baroque music, and also less attractive than “undeveloped” music from the pre-Baroque period. Yes, more popular, more innovative, more influential, but not as good. 🙂 Not everything appealing has to be complicated. 🙂

        I recently bought, more out of curiosity than anything else, a CD of The Prospect Before Us and a couple of days ago listened to it while driving at maximum speed (for my car) on the Autobahn. It’s a strange mixture of late-mediaeval/early Renaissance stuff (really, really good) and what I consider to be boring (in these cases; there is some good stuff in this genre too) English dance music, often accordion-led. In particular, tracks 4, 10, 12, and, to a lesser extent, 14 are really good and/or extraordinarily beautiful. I could (and sometimes do) listen to stuff like this all day.

        Joke of the day: What did Mozart do after he died? He decomposed.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I’m glad you included that caveat about your car, because maximum speed on the autobahn in good weather is 300 000 000 m/s.

        Changing the subject slightly, I listened recently to the 1812 Overture done with a choir augmenting the orchestra. There is more than one such version but all are much more thrilling than the orchestral original. I also don’t know why Tchaikovsky was so sniffy about it, saying that it was written to a commission. So what? Painters never minded, and the desire for total autonomy hasn’t done the arts much good in the 20th century.

        I have an interesting book which has collected the comments of composers on other, earlier, composers. It is called “Composers on Composers” ‘by’ John L. Holmes. It is organised such that each chapter is about what others composers have said about a particular composer. Holmes has also edited a volume of comments by conductors about composers.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well yes Peter, but I’d rather listen to the dross of the 18th century than the best of the later 20th.

      • “Each age has its masterpieces and its dross. That’s as true for the modern age as it is for the baroque era.”

        Yes, but different people still have different tastes. You might prefer jazz dross to excellent heavy metal, for example. 🙂

        “It seems to me that the need to rebel against prevailing norms is one major spur for creativity.”

        I disagree, at least as long as rebellion is the main point. Case in point: punk. Enough said. 😐 The only thing that matters is quality. Sometimes new developments might be perceived by the old guard as rebellion, but, in the words of Feynman, we shouldn’t care what other people think. (There is an interview video with Mick Jagger when he was about 20 saying that he does what he likes and doesn’t care that people see it as rebellion. He then said that he would probably be doing the same years from now and people would then criticize him for being too conventional.)

      • I recall an interview in Mojo with a punk musician who was trying to make the point that her band was true punk. “The other bands just pretended that they couldn’t play their instruments, but we really couldn’t play.” 😐

      • “I recently bought, more out of curiosity than anything else, a CD of The Prospect Before Us”

        It’s a small world. I just learned that there is a comic ballet (actually, at the same time I also learned that there is such a thing as comic ballet, though from some perspective all ballets are comic) of the same name which uses music from the obscure (though I have an album) English Baroque composer William Boyce.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Was Beethoven rebelling? It sounds like it in his mature (and pre-‘late’) phase, against tyranny and people – but people seldom succeed in replacing it by anything better or different, insofar as the great majority of the population are concerned.

        Kenneth Clark interprets Beethoven very well in the penultimate episode of his famous TV series “Civilisation”:

        To save time, catch the opening to 6.30, and 15.10 to 34.57 (the material about Byron is implicitly relevant to Beethoven). The first time I saw this prgoramme on TV as an adult in the early 1990s, the sequence in which O Welche Lust from Fidelio was set to a background of revolutions of the people seeking freedom, had me in tears.

        I am enjoying the new series that Clark’s has inspired, Civilisations, generalised to look at all civilisations through their art, not only Western European. Simon Schama presents 5 of the 9 episodes and is clearly the right man for the job. The trouble with it is that Clark’s series was actually a history, telling the tale of the West roughly chronologically through its visual arts, whereas the new series is simply about the visual arts across civilisations. As such, it very clearly lacks a spine upon which to hang its (generally very good) individual episodes.

      • telescoper Says:

        I must post that famous chorus some time, but I would say that Fidelio does illustrate my point that the most interesting art (to me) often comes in a period of transition. Fidelio definitely marks the transition from the Classical (Act 1) to the Romantic (Act 2). This is largely because Beethoven took a long time and several revisions to complete the Opera, but even so the transformation from Act 1 to Act 2 is really remarkable.

        Incidentally, Fidelio was a commission from Emanuel Schikaneder who wrote the libretto of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Oops, I failed to delete the words “and people” while editing the preceding post!

      • “John L. Holmes”

        Is the “L.” to distinguish him from the other John Holmes?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I took that episode of Clark (the 12th), and the 6th – about Luther and Shakespeare – to be the outstanding episodes of the thirteen.

        I’ve just been reading biographies of the great English poets of the late 18th and early 19th century – Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. (Not all are categorised as Romantic, although of course most are). What quickly struck me was how similar to the biographies of rock stars they are – best work fairly early in their career, excess, premature death: in sum, sex and drugs and… poetry.

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