Ravel told friends that it was his (unrealised) ambition to re-orchestrate Debussy's La Mer "because it is so badly scored".
Ravel told friends that it was his (unrealised) ambition to re-orchestrate Debussy's La Mer "because it is so badly scored". There were moments here when one heard what he meant. The uprush of strings in the central climax of the finale was as inaudible as ever against the flaring brass, and other instances of detail failing to get through suggested that it is not an easy score to balance. And all this from the Berlin Philharmonic, no less, under Sir Simon Rattle, in the concluding concert of their latest visit to the Proms.
Not that the reading lacked polish: the opening movement was so refined and distanced in texture, so becalmed in the cor anglais episode shortly before the end, that it seemed Rattle must be going for a languorous Mediterranean view of the score. Then, halfway through the central movement, he seemed to switch to the more brisk, briny English Channel approach of such conductors as Ansermet. The finale's ending certainly achieved the corybantic exultation Debussy specialised in, but it remained a curiously unfocused view of the work.
Why it was programmed as the upbeat to 62 minutes of Eclairs sur l'au-delà was not clear, unless we were meant to connect Debussy's seagulls with the lyrebirds and warblers of Messiaen's last completed sacred cycle. Composed in 1987-91 and laid out in 11 movements for a vast orchestra of 128 players, these "Illuminations of the Beyond" summon the usual sonorous images of his previous synasthesiac friezes: the polymodal chorales, dawn choruses, apocalyptic brass blasts and perfumed litanies for strings.
But there is a transparency to the scoring in which the orchestra is rarely heard all together, a terseness to the structures and somesurprise in the detail. Had they not recently recorded the work, one might have thought it unlikely Berlin repertoire, but they came gloriously into their own. The soggy attack on the first chord of the opening brass chorale was the sole blot on a dazzling account, with layered movements such as the second, with its multiple chimings and bird counterpoints for six flutes.
Most memorable was the fifth movement, "Abide in Love": a sustained slow melody for upper strings, poignantly harmonised and interspersed with breathtaking silences. With the strings exquisitely grading their response to Rattle's peerless phrasing, it seemed the nearest thing to time suspended in an eternal beyond we are likely to experience on this side.
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