Sunday, August 21, 2011

New Thoughts on the Proms

Das Klagende Lied - Until now, I hadn't been particularly impressed with Edward Gardiner. But this performance of Das Klagende Lied had the Mahlerian fire. It was a youthful performance of a youthful work: perhaps a bit overpropulsive but no less exciting for that. I'd never heard the work sound so modern, so surreal, so innovative. Other conductors might be better at pointing up the similarities to Mahler's later music, but Gardiner met the piece on its own terms and proved an excellent guide all the same.

Oramo's Nielsen I'm not sure Oramo gets Sibelius, as he gave a rather bland performance of Sibelius's 6th. But he definitely gets Nielsen. Even if this didn't have the incinerating fire of Osmo Vanska's Nielsen 4 of some years ago, this was an excellent performance. Detail after detail emerged with crystal clarity. Nielsen is a composer finally coming into his own in our day. If you haven't grown up with his music, it's very difficult to get the idiom - which is both fleet and massive. You have to use all the weight of a Wagnerian orchestra and balance that weight with all the agility required in a Haydn Quartet. Oramo clearly gets that. Here's hoping for a Nielsen cycle from him and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic before long.

Steve Reich: I really wish they'd have performed some of his later music, which is frankly more interesting. But these were fine performances of Reich's modern classics. It's just a shame that the earlier stuff, pleasing but nondescript, gets so much more attention than his later music - which is the work of a genuinely great artist.

Gergiev's Swan Lake Swan Lake is the worst of Tchaikovsky's Ballet Scores - which is a bit like calling Cosi fan Tutte the worst of Mozart's Da Ponte Operas. Tchaikovsky's ballets still don't get enough respect. They are three of the greatest scores of the nineteenth century and the finest things he ever wrote. Swan Lake has longeurs, but Gergiev's propulsive baton minimizes the bad moments and milks everything else for maximum excitement. I don't know how dancers keep up with Gergiev, I know that sometimes the sloppiness is unforgivable, and I'm certainly aware that Gergiev's is not the only way to play Tchaikovsky. But when there is this much passion and character, who cares? At his best, Valery Gergiev has a once-in-a-generation talent for creating awe-inspiring experiences. Before him, there was Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Furtwangler.

Salonen's Stravinsky Living or dead, there has never been a greater Stravinsky conductor than Esa-Pekka. And his insights only grow with time. This was as great a reading of Petrushka as I ever hope to hear. Except Monteux, no conductor has conducted Petrushka with this much rhythmic freedom. What, you say? Rhythmic freedom? From Esa-Pekka Salonen? Just listen, it's on the BBC website for another three days. Like all the great masters, he knows the exact pressure points of the score and knows precisely how to shape so that the structure is enhanced, not distorted. His Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were at their best in the passages that sounded most like Stravinsky. But Salonen's Stravinsky alone could assure his place as one of the all-time great conductors.

(thoughts on Bruckner, Haitink/Brahms and Britten later)

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