Although the Orquesta Nacional de España has labelled one series of concerts “Looking East”, the only obvious connection in the February 29th program is Ravel’s Shéhérazade. A text in the program book tries to explain the relation for Debussy´s La Mer, but even the author gives up when it comes to Schumann’s cello concerto op. 129.
Of course, the bizarre title has nothing to do with the music making itself. In the Schumann item, Steven Isserlis proved to be the cellists’ answer to Cecilia Bartoli – his intense playing goes beyond producing pretty sounds, but you still have to deal with a tone that is basically unnoble. I don’t know if Schumann would have expected the one-paroxism-per-second approach, but it definitely makes its point. Conductor Josep Pons, the orchestra’s musical director, fortunately could cope with the emotional approach without sacrificing polish – something he could not repeat in the Debussy piece. Maybe I am spoiled by the recent Carnegie Hall concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Mariss Jansons but, even if the ONE has rich strings, the over-extrovert approach brought about a stridence that – in my opinion – has nothing to do with this kind of music. The conductor looked for bombastics and marked dance-like rhythms that eschewed any sense of demi-tintes (and some clarity either).
It is most curious, though, that Pons could fnd again the necessary subtle shading for Ravel’s Shéhérazade, when he had an extraordinary soloist in Véronique Gens. You can call me an admirer, but I have to confess this was the best I have ever heard from her either live or in recordings. Her sensuous soprano gleamed from bottom to top and one could understand each vowel and consonant in the French text, treated to masterly tone-colouring, the most ethereal mezza-voce and full-toned velvetiness, as required in the first song. This was definitely one of the most perfect vocal performances I have heard live in a while – hence my disappointment with the audience’s tame reception.