sat 20/07/2024

Hannigan, Uchida, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Hannigan, Uchida, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

Hannigan, Uchida, Philharmonia, Salonen, Royal Festival Hall

A magical, delightful Ravel opera in an imaginative semi-staging

Rehearsal image of L'Enfant et Les Sortilèges Philharmonia

While the Berlin Philharmonic's progress through London with Simon Rattle has grabbed the column inches away from the rest of the capital's classical music offerings this week, a delightful mostly Ravel programme from the Philharmonia should not be passed over.

It presented the G Major Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida as exemplary soloist, and an imaginative semi-staging of the “lyrical fantasy” L'Enfant et Les Sortilèges, a work too rarely performed, and which is hard to beat for sheer magic.

Both of these compositions are the result of long creative processes. They are lovingly crafted pieces in which an undisputed genius of orchestration gave himself completely free rein. Ravel takes the listener directly into a sound-world where he draws vivid and unexpected colours from a seemingly inexhaustible palette, and where joyful tricks and constant surprises are the norm.

In the piano concerto, Mitsuko Uchida's performance (image left by Jean Radel) was remarkable for quite how completely and how soon she was able to capture and establish the specific idiom of each of the three movements. In the first, what caught the ear was her complete freedom with tempo in solo passages, lingering, stretching out over particular phrases.

Uchida's sense of fantasy nevertheless fitted in perfectly with the martial tautness of the orchestral sections, one complementing the other. In the poetic slow movement it was her sense of the line and of the organic growth within the movement which captured the imagination, with orchestral solo honours going above all to first horn Nigel Black. Wind players' hearts leap with a combination of exhilaration and fear at some of Ravel's writing; Black's understated solo in perilously high territory was not the kind of playing which draws attention to itself, and yet it had perfect poise and astonishing control. Esa-Pekka Salonen's shaped, balanced perdendosi ending of the movement was another marvel. It prepared the scene for a captivating bright-toned and exhilarating finale. Uchida added a tiny encore, giving the audience a playful thumb-and forefinger “yes, this small!” gesture to introduce it: one of the Schoenberg Kleine Klavierstücke Op 19.

L'Enfant et les Sortilèges is about magic, about juxtapositions of kindness and cruelty and the adult world seen through the eyes of a small child – of six or seven years old, according to the score. This is a world where the maths homework strikes back, where a vandalised grandfather clock laments the pain which has been inflicted on it, where – in this production – a cat in black PVC trousers flirts and jiggles with a Fifties rocker. The percussion section get to play the complete toyshop: cheese-grater, wind-machne, even a “Crécelle à manivelle” (look it up). It is also an orchestral canvas where mischievous lower wind orchestral voices – contrabassoon, bass clarinet, trombones are there to subvert the moments of serenity. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia players did justice to the constant magic which Ravel has strewn in this unique score. 

L'Enfant benefited from a clever design on the Royal Festival Hall stage by Ruth Sutcliffe, one of a creative team of eight, and from magnificent singing from the nine soloists and the 32 singers from Philharmonia Voices, whose simultaneous donning of black witches/dunces' caps nearly stole the show. Among the soloists the young Sabine Devieilhe in the high soprano roles of Fire and the Nightingale was a delight, Jean-Sébastien Bou held the stage as Grandfather Clock and a lubricious tom-cat. In the title role, Chloé Briot had to work hard at the beginning, singing behind the orchestra, but made the most of her moments at the end. This is the kind of performance which deserves to find its way into the Proms and on to DVD.

The score gives a specific underlined instruction in the score that the singer, with the roles held by Devieilhe (pictured above) as Fire and Nightingale must also have a third role, that of the Princess, but this was an instruction knowingly over-ruled, giving the role, with its sublime, completely exposed duet with solo flute (Samuel Coles on fine form) given to Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who made it into a very special moment.

Earlier, Hannigan had given an authoritative account of Henri Dutilleux's late song cycle Correspondances, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, and first performed by Dawn Upshaw. It is a work constantly looking back to the golden period of orchestral creation about a century earlier. Hannigan was at her best in the high-soaring parts, where her voice recalled that of Phylis Bryn-Julson from an earlier era.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters