Review: Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra & Chorus - Debussy's NO-LA-LI ou Le Palais du Silence @ Saint David's Hall
Friday 27th March 2015
Time to bid adieu to the Cardiff strand of the City of Light festival. Along with their two Messiaen concerts this year, this concert is the sure-fire highlight of the cultural year so far.
Cardiff University's orchestra will now go down in history for having three big premiers in this programme. Robert Orledge has revivified these Debussy works, as he did last year in WNO's The House of Usher double bill. By touching up these works, he has done the music world a big favour, since Debussy (most famous for his Clair de Lune) could be a slacker for projects and deadlines.
I feel a recording of both Debussy works is in order by these young players. With their first recent CD already released (my review is soon to follow), there could be more of a buzz about a recording. The French composer's prélude 'L'histoire de Tristan' may be a little snippet (with nothing very distinct to highlight) which opened the concert, but it was still exciting to know you were hearing new scores by a renowned composer, nearly one hundred years after his death.
The underrated André Jolivet was given a long overdue UK premier of his Poèmes Intimes (Intimate Poems). Sung by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, this is a work sung by either gender, as has been the fashion. This is a quintessentially French piece, with resonant timbres, lush harmonies and quivering melodies... it is perfection.
The luxury spa treatment that is this cycle, has a middle song (see the above link): Nous baignons dans une eau tranquille (We bathe in still water) with some great moments for the lilting vibraphone and soaring saxophone (an instrument Jolivet adored) and of course, for the singer as well. Huw Williams, through clear French and having a master tone in style, never fails in his skill.
Debussy's Nocturnes may not be a new work, but it is crisp and pleasant as it goes. Evoking three Impressionist landscapes, it's a brilliant representation of orchestration, with a heaven sent female choir vocalising in the final movement, Sirènes (the high point of the work).
Debussy's No-Ja-Li ou Le Palais du Silence was the big event for this concert. An incomplete Ballet written for a variety show in London inspired by Chinese music and fashion, being set in Formosa (now Taiwan). With a gamelan orchestra, chorus and narrator, this is one lavish ballet, but the speech and song is an ironic touch to the story, as the narrator (read by Stephen Walsh) details in French:
Prince Hong-Lo is dumb.
Prince Hong-Lo has cursed destiny.
and avenged his fate.
He imposes on his domains
A solemn oath preserves the secret law.
All is sadness in his frightened soul.
All seems gloomy in his eyes!
No more warm colours!
No more soft nuances!
on the walls
and "grey" on the men -
He loves - poor prince - the little princess
charming slave made idol.
For her, he is not the law,
only that of his oath:
"Let her adorn herself with chiming colours!
Let her pose as a flower!
She is the only light,
amidst all this sadness.
With a story that has similarities to Puccini's last opera Turandot (set in Peking) with themes of forbidden speech and the anxiety of love. Another ballet, Britten's Prince of the Pagodas would later delve into inspiration from the east as well, with similar musical soundscapes. The ballet here by Debussy was filled with barbarism, a perfumed eroticism and a even a joyous pride, heard with the choirs one verse of text:
Life! Life has returned!
The breath of our hearts takes free wing!
It is a clear dream from beyond sleep!
It is the song of our good fortune beneath the sun.
Let our strength bring joy
Caroline Rae and Robert Orledge introduced the work with many insightful remarks. It even turns out that Alfred Debussy, the composer's brother, lived in Cardiff for a while, as a buyer for a French railway company. Now there's something I didn't know!
The question now turns to the dance world, asking who will now stage the ballet? Perhaps Ballet Cymru should consider another world premier in Wales?
Ravel's La valse ended the evening in what I could only describe as "the waltz on acid". Post romantic and tongue in cheek, this spin on the old dance has a nasty militant menace, leading to a fevered last few minutes.
A concert to cherish.
Rating: 4 stars
See James' most recent short film, inspired by Monet, Debussy and traditional Chinese music here.
Click here to visit the Philarmonia's City of Light interactive website of Paris, featuring essays, videos, photographs, concert listings and more.
The City of Light International Conference is at the Institut Franais, London between Wednesday 27th till Friday 29th May 2015.
The Philharmonia Orchestra perform Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie at the Royal Festival Hall (along with Debussy's Syrinx and La Damoiselle Élue) on Thursday 28th May 2015, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on Wednesday 28th May 2015 and also at the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral on Sunday 26th July 2015.
Welsh National Opera stage a brand new production of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande in their summer season, A Terrible Innocence. Along with The UK premier of Peter Pan, by Richard Ayres and another revival of TheMagic Flute.
Want to win a Sprout T-shirt? Fill in theSprout Satisfaction Survey!
Image credit: 1. 'Claude Debussy': Sampleface. 2. 'Orchestra': Cardiff University.