The slight frustration of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is that the works in question are now either lost or of dubious identity. Imagine a soiree in one of the glorious rooms in the 18th century Hermitage in St Petersburg with the pictures on the wall and the music swirling around.
Alas, neither of these things is to be and we had to be content with the rather more prosaic though still showy surroundings of Henry T. Hare’s Oxford Town Hall from 1893-7; though indeed the Queen Anne interior plasterwork makes a nice little link with that of The Hermitage. The last few times I’ve been to the Town Hall under my own steam it’s been in the cheap seats at the back where the concert experience is akin to peering with a periscope out of a cardboard box, with Big Daddy overflowing from the seat directly in front.
“There’s nothing penny-pinching about the Daily Info,” I said to myself, so I was anticipating a seat the Mayor himself would have envied, gold chain and all.... but no! It was grab the first empty available and crane your neck to focus on the back of the 2nd violinist’s neck. For as long as there’s no rake to the seats and no dais for the players, the Town Hall, in visual terms and save for those folk in the front row of the gallery, will remain a flawed concert experience, I’m afraid.
We kicked off with Tchaikovsky’s inexplicably obscure The Tempest, one of his symphonic poems, and it was a happy stroke that conductor Robert Max had picked this work rather than, say, the much more familiar Francesca da Rimini. The piece ranges the gamut of expression from the raging storm that drives Prospero to the island to the delicate amour of Ferdinand and Miranda. The brass section, including a booming tuba, has full scope here and made the plasterwork above them tremble.
Then on to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G which has a charming connection with Oxford in that the opening theme came to the composer on a train between Oxford and London. O fortunate railway line to be the onlie begetter of such a masterpiece! Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson afterwards told the Daily Info he was performing the piece in public for the very first time. Tempo change is everything here – both within the jazzy 1st movement and from its explosive end into the famously hypnotic adagio – Ravel was interested in hypnotism, and I wouldn’t be surprised were the adagio in part intended as a musical representation of that state. This music is of such beauty, nobility and expressiveness, and frankly I thought Mr Beatson took it too fast (though when I suggested this to him he understandably demurred). He clocked in at 7.25 mins, whereas in the four CD versions of the piece that I own the movement comes in variously between 9.18 and 11.44 mins. The constant left-hand accompaniment, a slow waltz really, had become almost a foxtrot and the successive accompaniment from flute, clarinet and then oboe had to push on to keep up.
Pictures at an Exhibition strikes an immediate blow with its celebrated fanfare, and again the work is a brass section’s treat. Mr Max conducted with wonderful energy, and if he was not able always to hold together the strings and brass so that once or twice a lacuna developed, then little harm was done. The programme, a paragon of its kind and a lateish contender for the Daily Info Programme of the Year competition – alas the field is distressingly thin – provided a vignette description of each of the pictures. Consequently many of the audience around me followed the sequence from the notes and were able to form their own visual and aural picture as the music proceeded. A delightful opportunity!