Orchestral manoeuvres in the light

Ravel Through the Looking-Glass LSO / Andre Previn Barbican Centre, London
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The Independent Culture
Ravel had as infallible a sense of what instruments can do as any composer, but it's curious that most of his orchestral works originated as music for the piano, whether for one or two players. Usually it's impossible to prefer either version, or, at least, it's a matter of taste, for Ravel is completely at home in each medium. Yet listening to Andre Previn conduct Valses nobles et sentimentales at the Barbican on Thursday, you might have hankered after the light airiness of the solo piano version, so thick and soupy was the sound of the strings. Previn relaxed the tempo of the second waltz to the point of indulgence, too, but anyway, the fleetness that a single player can achieve is far less likely with an entire orchestra.

La valse, on the other hand, seems more natural in its orchestral form than in Ravel's version for two pianos, because the way it conjures up a dazzling vision out of obscurity, or awakes the past through the mists of time, relies on the orchestra's infinite capacity to create illusion and mystery. Two pianos have to work very hard to do that. Still, that misty and mysterious atmosphere was lacking here, because the lights were too bright, musically speaking, from the very beginning.

Previn certainly seemed more at home in the much sharper, kaleidoscopic colouring of Ravel's opera L'enfant et les sortileges, which sets a children's fable by Colette. Perhaps Ravel wouldn't have cared very much about its naive moral, but its evocation of a child's make-believe world inspired the same kind of exquisite orchestral invention he showed in the fairy tales of Ma mere l'oye. In the opera, with a sharply defined sequence of events, Ravel didn't have to build up symphonic steam, so he could revel in selecting fastidiously the most ravishing and transparent effects. If that suggests the music is merely effective, it's no more nor less so than Schoenberg's evocation of adult nightmares in Erwartung. The danger for Ravel, though, was cuteness, with singers pretending to be cats and frogs, and a woman pretending to be a horrid little boy who gets his come- uppance.

Ravel cast him as a mezzo, the conventional register for trouser roles, if not for small brats, and that suggests the young man the boy will, presumably, grow into, even though his / her final utterance is "Maman!" - a sigh of relief after his ordeal. Pamela Helen Stephen was clean-cut and steady, above all young and fresh without being too pert. Anne-Marie Owens was a good matronly contrast as the boy's mother. The American coloratura Elizabeth Futral was bright but also sensuous in her triple role of Fire, Princess and Nightingale, with the rest of the cast, including David Wilson-Johnson as a clock, an armchair and a cat, and Robert Lloyd as a much-abused tree, all very strong.

Adrian Jack