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After an acclaimed rendition of Massenet’s Cendrillon last season, Alain Altinoglu returns to La Monnaie for a symphonic programme of French music. He will guide us through the evolutions from the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with pieces by Chausson, Fauré and Ravel. Born and brought up in Paris, he is the very embodiment of the French tradition and the ideal person to lead La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra in the typically French palette of orchestral colour.
You will be performing a programme of work composed between 1890 and1930, which takes us from romanticism to modernism. A lot was going on in French music in that period…
Yes, that’s true, and not only in music, but in all the arts! Moreover, the many artistic movements of the time, from impressionism onwards, greatly influenced the rest of the world. It’s fascinating to track where a composer comes from and where he goes from there, particularly when I can also show how the tradition is passed on from teacher to pupil. Harmonically, Chausson’s Symphony, which was still quite classical in terms of structure, evolved with Fauré and later also with Ravel, who studied under Fauré. It’s interesting to see how the vocabulary adapts and the orchestration changes!
Why did you choose these three works?
Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande runs like a thread through La Monnaie’s programming. This year the programme features Schoenberg’s symphonic poem as well as Debussy’s opera. So for me Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande was an obvious choice. I wanted to develop my programme in two directions from that work. On the one hand, looking ahead to the later music via Ravel’s Boléro, a work that is very rewarding for the orchestra because each section of the orchestra gets a chance to perform individually and the solos follow one another. And on the other hand, looking back, Chausson’s Symphony is an underestimated gem. I really love this work with its magnificent second movement. Chausson was regarded as an amateur for far too long, perhaps because he had another job or because he chose to concentrate on music late in life – he was almost forty. But his music is absolutely fantastic!
But isn’t Chausson’s Symphony an atypical example of nineteenth-century French music because of the ‘Germanic’ influences?
With Chausson you certainly feel the influences of the two dominant schools at the end of the nineteenth century. There is both the influence of Massenet, under whom he studied, and the influence of César Franck, in whom traces of Richard Wagner can be heard… At that time there was a good deal of rivalry between the Franckists and the others. And Chausson clearly sympathized with the Franckian camp, partly through his use of the so-called ‘cyclic principle’: a recurring motif which he used more as a structuring principle than as a leitmotif. Wagner’s influence is patently obvious in Chausson’s opera Le Roi Arthus, which is almost a French Tristan, but it can also be heard in this Symphony. This work and Franck’s Symphony have a lot in common, but Chausson’s sounds more French to my ear. With Franck you have more of a ‘Germanic’ sound with a more substantial orchestration, whereas Chausson looks for greater clarity of timbres and it is a little lighter.
Like Debussy, Fauré drew inspiration from Maurice Maeterlinck…
Yes, and so did Chausson, who had written his song cycle Serres chaudes to texts by Maeterlinck. You would expect the similarity between Debussy and Fauré to be stronger because they both take the same text by Maeterlinck as their starting point, but in fact the two works have nothing in common; they are two totally different, almost incomparable worlds! Debussy has Maeterlinck’s text sung, whereas Fauré draws a suite for orchestra out of the atmosphere (Fauré’s one sung fragment to a text by Maeterlinck is pared down in the orchestral suite.) Both their text and musical language are totally different. Fauré is far more classical, whereas Debussy is innovative. But what I find so beautiful with Fauré is the formal classicism that is in keeping with the spirit of the piece. He found lots of concise melodies which go straight to the heart and also the way he plays with timbres continues to ring in your ear.
And after the subdued world of Fauré’s Pelléas come the fireworks of Ravel’s Boléro…
I don’t need to introduce this piece, of course; it has to be among the most popular works in the whole classical repertoire. Ravel is one of the few composers who I can honestly say wrote only masterpieces. He composed slowly but deliberately. He was always very modest about Boléro; he certainly didn’t expect it to be such a success. But the great crescendo with the same thematic idea from beginning to end has tremendous power. The principle is very simple: the drum gives the same rhythm the whole time and the orchestra develops a single theme. That process had been around for centuries, but to be swept along by that incredible crescendo is an unforgettable experience.
Interview by Reinder Pols