Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by FranÁois-Xavier Roth

The work which you might have expected to end the program, BolÈro,
one of the great orchestral showpieces, didn’t come at the final stretch
which may in the end have been just as well; this was a performance which
didn’t really do much for me, not that it stopped most of the audience
thinking otherwise.

L’heure espagnole
– as its title suggests – runs close to an hour in length, though at times
Roth seemed close to edging it faster. This is Ravel at his most
imaginative, the composer astonishingly vivid in his scoring – in one sense
this is an opera that literally vibrates, ticks and tocks, clicks with the
pulse of swaying metronomes – quite literally, in fact – and has the rhythm
of mechanics running through it. It predates VarËse by decades – and who
would turn to science, mechanics and the influence of key thinkers like da
Vinci in his aural landscapes – but Ravel’s opera is every bit as
inventive, if necessarily more primitive in its thinking.

Ravel described L’heure espagnole as an opÈra-bouffe – and the
best performances of it draw on high comedy and emphasise the sense of
ordinariness of the characters. This may be less obviously easy to do in a
concert performance as we had here – but it worked because the cast largely
achieved that by entering and leaving at the wings of the stage rather as
the libretto demanded. It certainly helped that they weren’t just sat there
doing nothing (which would have been a travesty for the role of Torquemada,
who is supposed to be out for the ‘hour’ winding the town’s clocks, while
his wife, ConcepciÛn juggles – without much success – between her clumsy

In every sense this is an opera about time and timing – the muleteer Ramiro
stops by to have his watch fixed, Torquemada has to tend to the town’s
clocks (so Ramiro has to wait), ConcepciÛn doesn’t even have a clock in her
bedroom but wants one there, Gonzalve, a poet more interested in his love
for words rather the love of another kind, and is eventually stuffed into a
clock he can’t get out of, and the banker Don IÒigo hidden in another
clock, are metaphors within a comedy. It requires a better than average
cast to bring all this off, especially when they’re largely confined on a
stage in front of a conductor. To their credit, the five singers did a very
notable job of doing just that.

It helped that the surtitles were very funnily translated – and they were
even a touch double-edged in their meaning. It was just as well we had
surtitles because I found some of the French being sung extraordinarily
difficult to follow, even to the extent I sometimes wondered at times what
language I was hearing; I’ve rarely heard this opera sound quite that
vocally mangled. But never mind. The comedy ended up being beautifully
timed. The acting, although it could have been limited by space, was not
just considered, it was a joy to watch and very expressive, comic without
feeling forced – soaking up every ounce of farce like a sponge from a
libretto that sometimes challenges its singers to do so.

Jean-Paul FouchÈcourt’s Torquemada rather left no doubt as to why Isabelle
Druet’s ConcepciÛn might seek amour elsewhere – but how perfect
they were as an imperfect coupling. If FouchÈcourt engaged with the female
violinists of the LSO, in flirtatious exits and entrances, more than he
ever did with his wife, Druet’s ConcepciÛn left no doubt why the dynamics
of this relationship were always in disarrangement. On the one hand, you
had the small, but always superbly well-crafted tenor of FouchÈcourt, set
beside the powerful, sleekly engineered grandeur of Druet’s soprano. It was
perhaps a little more lyrical than one might expect – but it worked like
clockwork. An ideal couple who revelled in the comedy of being singularly

Thomas DoliÈ’s Ramiro was undeniably strapping – a singer who has the kind
of rip-roaring baritone that easily strides over an orchestra. But he
clearly understood the role as well bringing a silky pathos when needed and
an all-knowing understanding to the sexual double-dealing of ConcepciÛn.
Gonzalve can sometimes seem difficult to cast – it needs a singer who
somehow needs to inhabit two rather indistinct worlds. Edgaras Montvidas
effortlessly sang the role with much expression, but he was also able to
define the poet who rather seems aloof from reality. His tenor was probably
the most shining voice of the evening, the one which came closest to
mirroring the precision and beauty that came from the orchestra. In
Nicholas Cavallier’s Gomez – the grey-haired banker – one related to his
ego, and his failures.

Roth’s conducting – as it had been in the first half of the concert – often
seemed on the brisk side, but this was also a beautifully proportioned,
often mesmerising performance, exquisitely played, by an LSO that didn’t
always seem comfortable in this idiomatic music. Indeed, I had found the
opening Rapsodie espagnole – a work which in the wrong hands can
often outstay its welcome – come tenuously close to drifting off
completely. Roth seemed so intent on contrasting the slow and fast sections
of this score that I felt I was on a helter-skelter. The opening prelude
took a while to get going – and one never really felt that those languorous
passages Ravel went to great effort to highlight shadows and time in the
music did anything other than linger. On the other hand, there was a Feria
which felt fiery – but it came just a little too late. BolÈro,
too, didn’t really wow me as some other performances have done. There are
some conductors who feel they need to conduct this work, and those who feel
the work can just play itself – Roth falls into the first category.
Brushing aside the distinctly un-French sound of the LSO, especially in the
woodwind here (and which actually didn’t at all seem noticeable during L’heure espagnole), and some uncommonly lazy playing, this was a
performance which tended to run on the fast side. Roth knows how to ratchet
up the tension and suspense in BolÈro – this performance felt like
a screw tightening – and the climax felt colossal. But if you were looking
for something that strived towards the oriental, or that looked into the
deeper mechanical workings of a score where each player seems to play like
a welder hammering metal, or a mason carving stone this performance wasn’t

Earlier in the evening I had caught a short concert of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. Given by the Marmen Quartet – as part
of the Guildhall Artists series – this was a performance which didn’t
necessarily seek enormous depth in a work which looks to Debussy’s Quartet
for its inspiration. There was no lack of precision here, nor an
unwillingness to highlight the shadowy writing that separates the upper and
lower instruments; contrast was a hallmark throughout. There was an
impressive sense of taking the music in a single arc during movements, even
when the time signature changes – as in the Vif et agitÈ. If a
single player grabbed my attention it was the cellist, Steffan Morris. His
tone is deep, beguilingly rich – even sumptuous. He added weight to a
performance which sometimes seemed to spurn it.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC iPlayer on 30th April
and will be available for 30 days.

Marc Bridle

London Symphony Orchestra – FranÁois-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Isabelle Druet (soprano), Jean-Paul FouchÈcourt (tenor), Thomas DoliÈ
(baritone), Edgaras Montvidas (tenor), Nicolas Cavallier (bass-baritone)

Marmen Quartet – Johannes Marmen (violin), Ricky Gore (violin), Bryony
Gibson-Gore (viola), Steffan Morris (cello)

Barbican Hall, London; 25th April 2019.

product_title=Ravel: L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: FranÁois-Xavier Roth

Photo credit: Doug Peters