Ravel: Piano Concerto in G; Strauss: Metamorphosen and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite

Hélène Grimaud; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Vladimir Jurowski

Cité de la Musique, Paris, 1 February 2009 4 stars

Helene Grimaud

Discovering slightly lesser-known Richard Strauss was the original theme of a series of January concerts to be given in France by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. But illness intervened and cut down rehearsal time, so the soloist Hélène Grimaud omitted the Strauss Burlesque for piano and orchestra and substituted instead a work that she clearly knows backwards, Ravel's piano concerto in G. This was sandwiched between the strings of the COE giving us Metamorphosen of 1945 and the full orchestra finishing the evening with the 1920 Suite of Strauss's incidental music to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. As a concert programme, it still worked pretty well.

Metamorphosen is an extraordinary work, very much of its time (1945) in the bleakness of its sound world and the circularity of its melodic development. Four repeated stabbing notes (starting with the violas) keep trying to propel us forward but discordant seconds hold us back harmonically: it is as if Strauss could never get away from the melodic cell that he heard in the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica and realised was at the heart of the single movement Adagio for strings (later to become Metamorphosen) that he began to compose in 1943 as an emotional response to the bombing and destruction of the Munich Staatsoper, his spiritual operatic home. But Metamorphosen is more than just reaction to bombing and destruction: Strauss's interest in Goethe and the specific poem he re-read at the time of the work's composition makes it clear that he saw the piece as a warning too. Frail humanity can all too easily undergo metamorphosis into the bad. Perhaps Alan Jefferson had this in mind when he referred to Metamorphosen as 'possibly the saddest piece of music ever written'. 

In the COE's performance, exquisitely moulded phrasing gave great elasticity to each of Strauss's developmental ideas. The sound never became cluttered, opaque: each separate string line was woven in and out of its surrounding harmonic underpinning with exceptional delicacy. As a result, the work glowed and felt in balance: even the Agitato section was controlled and precise, the string sound opulent without ever becoming strained or coarse, as can happen with this work. The COE is always an orchestra that performs as if its players are listening to each other, and in this case, under Jurowski's deft baton, they gave a moving and memorable performance. Metamorphosen rose and fell, expanded and contracted, pushed forward and pulled back again. Silence at the end before the applause starts is always a good sign and, in this case of this fine piece of music-making, particularly eloquent.

And so to the complete change of moodof Ravel's Concerto in G. Just as Metamorphosen was a work of its time, so it is impossible to hear the Ravel without thinking of the time he had just spent on tour in the USA immediately before its composition, and hearing the huge influence of jazz, and of Gershwin, on this playful, virtuoso work (almost Ravel's last major composition before he succumbed to the illness that was to kill him six years later). And impossible too to ignore echoes and overtones of the Concerto for the left hand, a work commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein from Ravel in 1930, even while the latter was totally immersed in the concerto in G.

Vladimir JurowskiHélène Grimaud had a small army of fans at the Cite de la Musique and they loved her performance. Lively, incisive and with a good sense of attack, she set about the outer movements – allegramente and presto – with a will, summoning in the process some fine virtuoso playing from the woodwind and trumpets of the COE. Her passagework was not totally accurate but the brio and élan of her playing saw us through the odd approximation here and there. And she clearly feels the impulse of this music instinctively, which makes her a formidable exponent of the work.

It was in the hushed adagio however that I began to get the feeling that her interpretation was a shade perfunctory at times. The E major melody unfolded as it should, but Ravel's extraordinary left hand/right hand articulation and accentuation, that makes you feel the wondrous strangeness of the beautiful world you have suddenly been immersed in when played by a master pianist, somehow missed a beat and the playing sounded ordinary. Grimaud is far from ordinary and a real musical talent, so I put it down simply to a near miss on the night – it wasn't quite the heart-stopping performance of which she is surely capable on another occasion.

Nevertheless, the finale wiped away all thoughts of introspection and the audience duly erupted. Hugely enjoyable therefore, if not quite the whole package.

The Suite to Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme that ended the evening is a lovely piece of Strauss recycling. What a shame for posterity it would have been not to hear the attractive, neo-baroque movements that Strauss wrote for the play that made up the first half of his original version of Ariadne auf Naxos. And so in 1920, with the purely operatic Ariadne now established as the work that would go forward, Strauss salvaged over half an hour's worth of music from his original concept and turned it into a concert suite in 9 movements.

Jurowski and the COE played it exactly as it should be played: with wit, delicacy and charm. Each movement has a character of its own (to represent the various comings and goings in the house of the richest man in Vienna) and this gave free rein to the virtuoso section leaders who make up the ranks of the COE: if I single out oboist Francois Leleux and flautist Jaime Martin for particular praise, that is not to disparage any of the other players, who gave us a mini-banquet of 9 courses. There is of course very little to the Suite structurally: it is a series of contrasting episodes, in which Strauss borrows from other composers (Lully, Wagner) and from himself (we hear delightful echoes of Zerbinetta in a little minuet). But it makes for a delightful and satisfying half hour, which the COE and their conductor clearly enjoyed to the full, as did the capacity audience.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos: Hélène Grimaud and Vladimir Jurowski


Helene GrimaudRelated articles:

Interview with Hélène Grimaud
Hélène Grimaud plays Beethoven at the Last Night of the Proms 2008
Hélène Grimaud plays Beethoven at the Edinburgh Festival 2008
Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Andras Shiff in Dublin, 2008

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