On the ocean ! and François-Xavier Roth reveals more of his many talents. Livestream with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, combining Britten, Unsuk Chin, Ravel and Debussy La Mer and, with a glorious twist, the original 1946 Charles Trenet La Mer sung by Roth himself ! From Roth, always expect the unexpected. Not many conductors would have the sass to do this, far less to sing it themselves, but Roth can, and did it with such style that the songb fitted perfectly well with the rest of the programme. Genre-blending with intelligence – no dumbing down here.
Benjamin Britten Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes set the scene. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln doesn’t sound like an English orchestra, so it was a good experience hearing Britten in this way – sparkier, less buttoned down and stiff upper lip. The timpani crashed, the church bells clanged, and the undercurrent in the tide motif pulled with a surge. Wild, dizzying angular lines : wonderfully quirky. Englishman as Peter Grimes is, he is Everyman, his story universal. This was “different” but perfectly valid, releasing the repressed “inner” Britten. This grows on you – enjoy the repeat broadcast.
Unsuk Chin’s Le Silence des Sirènes premiered in 2015 at Lucerne with Simon Rattle and Barbara Hannigan. This time the soloist was Donatienne Michel-Dansac, who made the piece an expression of zany humour, very much in the whimsical spirit of Chin’s music. This also fits the edginess in James Joyce’s text. Michel-Dansac’s voice calls, from a distance before she emerges on stage. This Siren seduces by the sheer variety of what she sings. She mutters, whispers, sighs, compelling attention. Long, high pitched ululations taunt the dissonant lines in the orchestra. When the Siren triumphs, her victim is dead. Thus the hollow, sardonic laugh.
Another surprise – Ravel Une barque sur l’océan in its orchestral version, paired seamlessly with Debussy La Mer, which, incidentally was completed by Debussy when he was on holiday in Eastbourne in Sussex. Britten’s North Sea coastlines can be bleak, but Eastbourne is closer to the expansive Atlantic and to France. Not that it really makes a difference, since the sea of Debussy’s imagination is an emotional, artistic response to the symbolism of the ocean – ever changing moods, depths, contrasts, driven by vast, invisible forces. Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Kölnwere in their element : a very strong performance, and very rewarding.
Pity about the presentation, though, which apes the hyper-hip vacuousness that plagues BBC Radio 3 these days. The presenter herself seems a rational person, who could probably develop a more rational style, more in keeping with the quality of this orchestra. .