Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20, K466; Lindberg: Graffiti

Cooper, Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Denève

Usher Hall, 25 November 2010 4 stars

Imogen Cooper

One of the perks of this reviewing business is that we generally get issued a programme. Off-duty, more than likely, I'll go commando; on this occasion I was quasi-commando, having forgotten to bring my reading glasses. Hence the question: what does the programme bring to the concert experience?

The reason I ask is that hearing Tombeau de Couperin without any interpretive apparatus besides one's ears and experience, two salient facts might completely pass you by as this deliciously tight and mellifluous performance worked its magic. The first is the suite's origin as piano music. As piano music it is, one might say, too difficult for children—meaning that its elegant allusions to the French harpsichord tradition make it sound deceptively simple.

As orchestral music, that dimension of accessibility isn't there, but neither is any sense of the cataclysmic context in which the suite was created. The second salient fact is that each of the six pieces in the piano suite is dedicated to a friend lost in the first world war, yet the score affords no outlet for sentimentality or grandstanding passion. (Yes, some pianists treat the toccata as a late-romantic thrash, but that and the fugue are not part of the orchestral suite.) Instead we have a work of great charm, haunted, if one wishes it to be, by its repeated falling harmonies; and also we have a masterclass in the art of orchestration, matched on this occasion by a superb performance from Stéphan Denève and the RSNO. Perhaps the most surprising thing, to the naked ear, is how the Tombeau appears to chime with inter-war English music, with its echoes of Warlock, Bliss, and even early Britten at his jauntiest.

It is Mozart, of course, whose music Schnabel described as 'too easy for children; too difficult for artists'. Maybe there is a third way: just right for women. Certainly Imogen Cooper's performance was acute and subtly effervescent, like a vintage champagne. It was striking to notice that the piano seems on much friendlier terms with the orchestra than one often sees, an observation due at least in part to the conspicuous empathy Ms Cooper generated with her accompanists, who were once again on superb form. I wonder, though, whether Steinway (or whoever) should invent a 'Mozart Mode' that locks the uppermost and lowermost registers to keep them from resonating. Just a thought.

After the interval, a large section of the audience morphed into the RSNO chorus, and took the stage for a performance of Magnus Lindberg's Graffiti- another of the current Ten:10 series. Our ditzy host for the season, programme note writer Eric Sellen, wonders why this work rather than other recent Lindberg orchestral scores such as the Violin Concerto or Concerto for Orchestra. I venture to suggest that it is the use of the chorus that recommends this solidly professional, upper-middlebrow work to posterity.

The graffiti in question are not the modern urban spray-can form, but rather a collective snapshot from Pompeii, with the camera shutter having been operated by the volcanic eruption that smothered the citizens one August day in AD 79. Not all the texts are graffiti—some items appear to be posters or shop signs—but they are all texts, inscriptions that save the author the trouble of speaking. At least, so it would seem to the modern eye. Silent reading being a relatively recent norm, it is easy to imagine busy city streets buzzing with the sound of people reading back these signs to themselves, and easy to imagine the composer sublimating that complex sound in many interesting ways.

Lindberg's score, though, is surprisingly conservative. Surprising in relation, that is, to the young Lindberg, whom one would have more easily associated with his contemporary and fellow-Finn Kaija Saariaho. Instead, again with the Britten simile, with the latter's Spring Symphony particularly coming to mind. Lindberg doesn't suffer from overstretch quite as overtly as Britten does in his larger excursions, but he does seem to share Britten's flair for matching orchestral sounds and textures to the words at hand. And there is something appealingly democratic in scoring for a chorus but no soloists, apart from (I think) eight individuals plucked from the ranks at appropriate moments. It is practicalities like that which will endear the work to canny impresarios in years to come.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Imogen Cooper

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