Arts: Classical - And the sparks flew...

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The Independent Culture
THE BBC Philharmonic has been celebrating its Principal Conductor's personable style of music-making with Le Festival Tortelier, spread over two weekends at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. Four works by the gifted but short-lived French composer, Lili Boulanger, proved to be the most revelatory aspect of the whole event.

Over-shadowed in musical history by her sister, the eminent teacher, Nadia Boulanger, afflicted by poor health in life and neglected after her death at the age of 24, she turned out some pretty astonishing compositions, few of which are heard even in France these days. However, with a CD in the can for Chandos, and a couple of her pieces planned for the Proms, Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic are bringing Lili Boulanger to light again.

Her substantial setting of "Psalm 130 Du fond l'abime", composed in 1917 within a year of her death, really does emerge dramatically from the lowest possible musical point. Organ, strings and brass judder upwards into life, to be met with stirring trumpet calls. Ann Murray brought a welcome consolatory note to an otherwise rather bleak prayer and here, as in Boulanger's short but brilliant fanfare-like "Psalm 130 La terre appartient a l'eternel", the orchestra was joined by the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus in particularly impassioned voice.

Between the psalm-settings, a pair of short contrasting works, "D'un matin de printemps" and "D'un soir triste", demonstrated Boulanger's inventive harmonic language and instinct for evocative instrumental colour. More please.

In an all-Ravel evening, Tortelier conducted his own arrangement for orchestra of Ravel's Trio for piano, violin and cello. Sympathising with Ravel's own concern that his Trio could never sound "trumpet enough", especially at the climax of the Final, Tortelier has compensated with plenty of highly dramatic brass throughout the score, as well as some unexpectedly effective tuned percussion and harp. It's a distinguished addition to the Ravel collection when played with such obvious affection and attention to the tiniest detail.

Tortelier is undoubtedly at his best when he's making sparks fly on the concert platform and Diaghilev would surely have been impressed by the conductor's athletic interpretation of three Stravinsky ballets, boldly sandwiched together and broadcast in one evening. After a slightly sober "Firebird", and a touchingly characterful "Petrushka" (1945 version), the orchestra mustered all the necessary vigour to attack the explosive "Rite of Spring" with acute rhythmic incisiveness.

In Britten's "Death in Venice", which the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Singers also gave in London as part of the BBC's Endless Parade series, Tortelier penetrated beyond the pictorialism of the serenissima sounds and vivid splashes of local colour into the work's deeper and more sinister elements. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson sang Aschenbach, and with Alan Opie an alternately ingratiating, camp and creepy Traveller, and the steely tones of Michael Chance as the Voice of Apollo soaring from the top galleries of the hall, there was a haunting intensity and increasing claustrophobia about the performance.

Those listening to the broadcast on Radio 3, however, were lucky to miss the visual distractions of the crudely lit, semi-staged presentation.