Josep Pons strode purposefully onto the Barbican stage to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Haydn's "Clock" Symphony. The first movement opened by way of an Adagio laden with a suitable sense of portent, the layers of writing for the strings being clearly articulated to bring this out. The ensuing Presto section contrasted in its rather beefed-up vigour, perhaps a reflection as much of Haydn's imaginative orchestration itself as Pons' fastidious interpretation of it, but clearly this was a rather old-school reading of Haydn rarely affected by any authentic movement practices. The second-movement Andante evidenced an awareness of musical form, though the regularity of the bass line that ticked away showed that in this case the mechanism which drove it was not quite Swiss engineered. The Minuet and Trio explored the internal variations of its material to great effect, with lively and subtly graded contributions from the woodwind section. The Vivace finale rounded things off neatly, being played with great style.
Hummel's works are comparative rarities before the public today, but during his lifetime they enjoyed great popularity. A pupil of Mozart and a colleague of Haydn's as concertmaster in the Esterházy court, he had a reputation as a keyboard virtuoso. This performance of the Piano Concerto in A minor, with Stephen Hough as soloist, allowed the inherent ornamentation to flow forth uninhibitedly. The first movement contrasted colourful orchestration of rather zippy potency with pianistic writing that mixed seriousness and flourish in equal measure. Stephen Hough took it all in his stride, playing from memory. If at times he sounded a touch hard pushed to maintain ideally clean articulation of his part, this was not a point one could level at him in the second movement. Here an air of near self-importance seemed present (more due to Hummel than Hough, it should be said); but more significantly any evidence that might be used to link Hummel as an influence on Chopin's compositional style was heard to come to the fore. Restraint marked the Larghetto movement out as one of beauty in its orchestral writing also. The piano solo linking passage into the Rondo finale again established Hough's fine sense of touch as the constantly attention worthy feature of the performance as a whole. Much of the movement found Hough embroiled in the ever more obsessive nature of the elaborations Hummel layers over his core material which includes two fugal sections alongside music of greater discretion.
The second half featured a semi-staged performance of Ravel's opera L'heure espagnole, which mixes female sexual desire with other fascinations, namely mechanical clocks and a range of Spanish musical influences. To form the backdrop to the action, Josep Pons conducted a no-nonsense account of the score that was nevertheless sensitive and witty. The stage direction offered by Kenneth Richardson was somewhat problematic, not least with the in-clock entrances and exits requiring singers to crouch behind cardboard cutouts of Big Ben. It was better by far at times to close one's eyes and imagine the interaction between the roles.
Ruxandra Donose might have portrayed the role of Concepción with greater overt sexiness in her acting, but the full impact of her sensuous mezzo-soprano meant that insinuation was often all that was required to make men melt to her merest wish. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt made much of the brief high tenor role as Torquemada, acting the interaction to the full with character when the opportunity allowed. Jacques Imbrailo's baritone was put to good service in the role of Ramiro the muleteer who impresses with his strength. Julien Behr, a young tenor from Lyon, is a singer we could do well to hear more from. The role of Gonzalve the poet offered some opportunity for his talents to emerge, even if a little too repetitious in the material at his disposal. David Wilson-Johnson's Don Inigo Gomez was clearly voiced but played for laughs, albeit rather predictably. In overall terms, it must be said, that was the problem: predictability. Were the performance not bound by the concert setting and given the full imagination of adequate stage direction, greater subtlety could have easily been achieved. More of the one-line witticisms in the libretto would have registered fully and Ravel's fanciful score would have been far better served.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS