The 2018-19 Music Nairn season has opened with an event wreathed in scandal in the shape of a recital by piano duo Pascal and Ami Rogé. In a brilliantly engaging programme, they performed a series of works associated with the early 20th-century Ballets Russes, an organisation which courted scandal as a candle courts moths. Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, Debussy's L'Apres Midi d'un Faune, Ravel's La Valse and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring were all associated in one way or another with Diaghilev's controversial company, and as the performers were quick to point out, while we know them best as lavishly orchestrated masterworks, they started out life as versions for piano four hands to be run past the great impresario.
Borodin's colourful Polovtsian Dances featured in the opening night of the Ballets Russes' first season in Paris in May 1909, and you can see how the exotic untamed folk elements appealed to Diaghilev and intrigued the Parisian public. In the Rogés' performance the full range of flavours in Borodin's music was ably served up with flair and virtuosity, if just occasionally I would have looked for a little more definition in Ami Rogé's cascades of upper register scales. Perhaps this was a warm-up issue, as it quickly resolved itself.
While Borodin's music must have startled the Parisian demi-monde, Debussy’s L'Apres Midi d'un Faune and the frankly erotic dance Nijinsky performed to it utterly scandalised them, kicking off a complex dynamic between the Ballets Russes and their public which relied on escalating levels of outrage and scandal. As Pascal Rogé insightfully observed, in this work Debussy effectively creates musical impressionism, a style which would dominate French music for decades thereafter. While we miss the wonderfully languorous textures of the full orchestration, the piano duet version brings out very effectively the evocative harmonies and lazy melodic patterns of this wonderful music.
A work which failed the Diaghilev test and which as a result never made it into the Ballets Russes' repertoire was Ravel's wonderfully over-the-top La Valse, although in the rather dense piano duet version it is possible to see how the normally astute impresario might miss the work's considerable potential. The second half of the concert opened with Eric Satie's wonderfully eclectic and prescient Parade, a work which not only spawned the term surrealism but also flirts with the world of minimalist music, and which saw the composer teamed up with Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso!
Finally to the big beast of the evening, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the ultimate Succès de Scandal for Diaghilev, his company and the young composer, as the original audience members screamed, shouted, assaulted one another and essentially went ape! Even a century later listening to the version which must have instantly convinced Diaghilev he had a monster hit on his hands, this visceral and insistently brutal music has an instant impact. The Rogés gave a stunning account of the work, finding lyricism and poise among the pounding rhythms and sweeping glissandi. The couple's lovely onstage manner – Ami even managed to negotiate three costume changes in the course of the recital – won the hearts of their Nairn audience, and a lovely encore of En bateau from the Petite Suite by Debussy seemed doubly appropriate – Debussy it was who played the second part in Stravinsky's performance for Diaghilev of the Rite of Spring, while the encore's soothing tones prevented too much brawling in the aisles as the substantial audience withdrew.