Classical: Spanish sizzlers

Ravel Through the Looking-Glass LSO / Andre Previn Barbican Centre, London
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The Independent Culture
There were giggles galore at Thursday's LSO / Barbican Ravel concert (the last orchestral event in the "Ravel Through the Looking-glass" series), when the portly lover of a clock-maker's wife warbled a high-pitched "cuckoo" from inside a clock-case. David Wilson-Johnson characterised the clumsy advances of one Don Inigo Gomez towards Concepcion, a foxy lady whose saucy cavorting dominates Ravel's 40-minute sex comedy L'heure espagnole. The libretto, by Franc-Nohain, has Concepcion seduce a muscly muleteer into traipsing her clock-encased lovers up and down the stairs of her shop. Eventually, lust wins the day and, while she takes the muleteer, her newly liberated, bleary-eyed lovers fool the returning clock-maker into believing that they were merely inspecting the mechanisms.

Ravel's score is like a vast Scherzo-Habanera, funny, spicy, full of catchy tunes and magnificently orchestrated, though with little of the pathos or emotional "pull" that makes his other opera, L'enfant et les sortileges, so magical. L'heure espagnole is above all a comedy set to music (L'enfant is more a tone-poem with words), a heady sequence of jokes and asides - such as, for example, the bulbous bassoon that relates Don Inigo to the "beast" from Ravel's Mother Goose ballet, or the big, brawny chords that paint the muleteer's physical prowess, or the tuba that guffaws when Inigo protests, "Do I lack, in your imagination, youth and poetry?"

Frederica von Stade had been scheduled to sing Concepcion but was indisposed; in her absence - she was indisposed - the Canadian mezzo Kimberly Barber proved a most alluring deputy, coy, beguiling, bitchy, full of fun and vocally distinctive. John Mark Ainsley made lyrical music of Gonzalve's purple poems, Kurt Ollmann was a rock-steady muleteer and Georges Goutier, a personable clock-maker. As to Andre Previn, he paced every comical incident, every outsize gesture as if it were his own creation - and his players followed him all the way.

The concert's first half had ended, appropriately enough, with another Ravelian Spanish sizzler, the dazzling Rapsodie espagnole. Previn's rostrum manner precluded any suggestion of tenseness, and yet his supple, crystal- clear conducting, always alert but refreshingly laid-back, encouraged the whole band to break loose and "go for it". The "Prelude a la nuit" shimmered and the "Malaguena" suggested silken hair and curved thighs, but it was the brassy, coltish "Feria" that made for the biggest impact - and the loudest climaxes.

Prior to the Rapsodie, Previn treated us to that most adorable of musical tributes, Le tombeau de Couperin, rendered orchestral from a rather more substantial piano original and piquant in the extreme. An auspicious curtain raiser, Le tombeau granted us a balletically spiralling "Prelude" (with fastidiously terraced dynamics), a carefree "Forlane", a gracious "Menuet" visited by subtle ritardandi (Previn underlined the ochre glow of Ravel's string writing) and a rustic "Rigaudon" to close. Although light-years removed from the Rapsodie's rioting or Concepcion's cunning, Le tombeau has a textural luminosity and harmonic pungency that, in a sense, make an even stronger impression. I could quite happily have left it at that, but then L'heure espagnole in particular was a real winner - and I wouldn't have missed that for the world.

Series ends on Wednesday with a chamber music evening, including Ravel's Violin Sonata and Trio. Booking: 0171-638 8891

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