Saturday, July 16, 2011

Prom 1 Review

Weir, Brahms, Liszt, Janacek

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Hibla Gerzmava (soprano)
Dagmar Peckova (mezzo-soprano)
Stefan Vinke (tenor)
Jan MartinĂ­k (bass)
David Goode (organ)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek (conductor)


Is it just me, or is Jiri Belohlavek waking up? When he came to the BBC Symphony, he seemed a competent but dull musician who gave off occasional flickers of inspiration, but his firebreathing moments have come increasingly often. Next year, he leaves the Beeb for the position he should have held for twenty years, the Czech Philharmonic, who fired him in 1991. Perhaps he's reinvigorated by the rapproachment. Or maybe it's just the water.

The concert itself was a weird compromise between the old tradition of beginning the Proms with a grab bag of light hits and the older tradition of beginning the Proms with a major choral work. On the first half were three light pieces, all played for maximum lightness.

First came a 4-minute commission: Stars, Night, Music and Light by Judith Weir. It was a very fine piece for a huge array of forces including chorus and organ. Stylistically, it was equally Messiaen and John Williams. And needless to say, it did not outwear its welcome.

After Weir came a very frothy performance of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. The tempo was fast, and there was not much of the flexibility great Brahms requires. But spirits were so high that it mattered little. The result was perhaps more a Franz von Suppe operetta than Brahms. A surprise came at the end when the Chorus entered to sing the old College song which Brahms appropriated for the piece: 'Gaudeamus Igetur,' in Sir Malcolm Sargent's arrangement. It was a nice gesture to Sargent, the second-most important figure in Proms history. But it's hardly appropriate to stuff 200 singers into such a no-fat performance. Even so, I had to wonder, why only the final song? Why not all four of the songs Brahms incorporated into his lightest orchestral work? Ah well, still a very enjoyable performance.

Next came Benjamin Grosvenor, who at 19 is being charged with the task of performing both Liszt Piano Concertos at the Proms. First comes the Second, and Grosvenor tackled Liszt's Second Concerto with no fear. When interviewed, he mentioned his love of Gyorgy Cziffra and the inspiration Grosvenor draws from Cziffra as a Lisztian. But precious little of the quixotic quirks which make Cziffra's Liszt so fascinating made its way to these ears. Grosvenor's runs and octaves were so impressive as to sound sculpted from ice. Both Grosvenor and Behlolavek made easy work of this sprawling piano monsterpiece which sounds turgid in so many less capable hands. The form was always clear and the textures polished to ultimate sheen. All that was missing was the bravado risk-taking without Liszt ceases to be Liszt. In its place was all the tastefulness and elegance for which one could wish. But what is Liszt without vulgarity? (Rather boring. In case an answer was needed to the rhetorical question.)

Finally came Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. For this blogger (who moonlights as a choral conductor), one of the towering choral masterpieces of all time and second only to Stravinsky's Les Noces among twentieth century works in the genre. When I lived in London, I heard a performance of the Glagolitic Mass by the late Sir Charles Mackerras which I still count as one of the two greatest live performances I've ever experienced in my life.

Now that Mackerras has passed on, Behlolavek is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest of living Janacek conductors. His view of the Glagolitic Mass is shockingly different from the tasteful inoffensive performances we've come to expect from him. This was a performance full of raw, ugly sounds, with huge (and unmarked) shifts in tempo. It all sounded a bit under-rehearsed, and perhaps not thought through well enough. But one can't argue with this kind of commitment. No performance I've ever heard, not even those by Mackerras or Kubelik, ever lived up to Milan Kundera's description of this work as 'More orgy than Mass.' Carefulness reared its head intermittently (particularly on the part of the organist, David Goode) but I think Janacek would have easily approved; certainly far more than he would have of the rigid and desiccated performance Pierre Boulez gave at the Proms three years ago. This is Janacek with the full range of his passions intact. If he remains unacknowledged as one of music's supreme creators, it is because people have not heard performances of this caliber.

Perhaps part of the reason for the performance sounding under-rehearsed is because of the score itself. For seventy years, Janacek's score existed only in a simplified, bowdlerized edition which severely curbed his individuality. To have heard the Mass in the simplified version for years and then to encounter the original is a revelation. There is hardly a single page in which the score is not altered immeasureably. And with every new 'original edition,' (one seems to come out every few years) the score is altered still further. I wonder if we have not passed the point of alterations helping. The piece now sounds stranger than ever, but not all the weirdness sounds like an improvement. I eagerly await the day (perhaps in vain) when conductors amass the self-confidence to make a performing version purely meant to work for themselves.

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