Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Grande Salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris, 221 Avenue Jean Jaurès, 75019 Paris

Klaus Mäkelä conducts Belshazzar’s Feast at the BBC Proms on August 4. Paris got in first with this live webcast. I know not when this 1930s’ masterpiece was last heard in the French capital, but it’s certainly encouraging that it crossed the Channel on this occasion and would do so again twenty-four hours later. Mäkelä had its measure only fitfully, atmospheric and descriptive from the outset, the large French-British choir presenting good English, Willard White somewhat raw but imposing, the Paris Orchestra well-prepared. White declaimed Babylon’s ‘shopping list’ vibrantly, and the festivity itself was initially tempo giusto (articulate) … well it was until Mäkelä speeded up and things became gabbled and pressured, if exciting and vivid, and the extra brass, if present (the score gives the option, I believe) didn’t make much impression; Mäkelä may need to adjust for the Albert Hall. The ‘writing on the wall’ episode enjoyed a mysterious hand and a dramatic shout of “Slain!”, although, for all his zeal, Mäkelä rather careered through the rest of the piece, certain aspects glossed over, such as syncopation.

It was Shostakovich for starters. Opening with his uproarious Jazz Suite No.2 – eight novelty numbers, circus-like ditties, played with pizzazz – belting brass, four salty saxophones, perky percussion (including two pianos), a guesting guitar and an acolyte accordion, scintillating and sentimental strings, musically embracing a wacky waltz and an end-of-an-era example, also something seductive (reminding of Glazunov) with a movement either borrowed from The Gadfly or later used in it, and a merry-go-round closing parade, xylophone prominent.

What a contrast with his Cello Concerto No.2 (Opus 126), composed in 1966 for Rostropovich, premiered that year in Moscow, Svetlanov conducting, music that opens bleakly, the cello lamenting, the orchestra shadowing, an angular dance emerging, edgy, its course disrupted by bass-drum strokes, the cello more and more introspective – no way out – until the sardonic measures of the second movement get going, with biting orchestral contributions, persecutors, leading to the horns’ curdled fanfare with death-rattle percussion, the final movement, of solace and unease (an uncomfortable juxtaposition) has started, building to an anguished climax with a short pounding aftermath, a return to introspection and then some defiance in the concluding measures. Sol Gabetta gave a compelling account of the solo part, haunted in expression, enquiring of the music’s innards and seeking explanations, and fastidiously partnered by Mäkelä. I can’t name Gabetta’s encore, something sultry, with a marimba for accompaniment; maybe a folksong from her native Argentina.

Throughout, sound and picture were exemplary, and presentation was silent, not one word of chat, simply the gentle hubbub of a keenly anticipating audience and the preparatory tones of an orchestra tuning.

Sir Willard White (bass-baritone); Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris; Cambridge University Symphony Chorus