Monday, August 8, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Proms So Far

I haven't had enough time to do actual reviews. So here's a quick dash on the one's I heard but didn't get to review.

The Bychkov Verdi Requiem - A good performance, ruined by terrible solo singing. The Mezzo, Mariana Pentcheva, had a particularly tragic warble. The all-important soprano part, sung by Marina Poplavskaya, was scarcely better. Bychkov is no James Levine in Verdi, but he has a good feel and the BBC was clearly giving him their all. I suppose this should be taken as a sign that the BBC Symphony is seriously considering Bychkov for their next music director. He'd be an OK choice, but an innovative programmer like David Robertson would be far better for them. No orchestra is in a better position to introduce interesting music than the BBC Symphony, and no conductor is better at that than their Principal Guest, whom they should make their director with all due haste.

Norrington's Mahler 9 - I'm not a Norrington-hater. This performance had as much right as wrong with it. Yes, Norrington's propaganda about vibrato-free strings is generally a terrible idea. Nowhere moreso than in Mahler. But few performances of Mahler 9 are individualized enough to feel at one with the way Mahler (or Mengelberg) would have conducted the work. This was not a great performance, but it's far better than most people gave it credit for being. Few have ever dared the intensity of Bruno Walter's famous 1938 performance with the Vienna Phil (Barbirolli, that it?). Norrington came closer than most.

Faust Symphony - Liszt's Faust Symphony is pure kitsch disguised as loftiness - the 19th century equivalent of Prog Rock. It needs an utterly superficial virtuoso at the helm. Vladimir Jurowski can easily get the required orchestral fireworks for this piece, but he takes it far too seriously. Along with the forgotten Ataulfo Argenta, Riccardo Muti is the gold standard conductor in this piece, perhaps because few conductors are more superficial than Muti.

Alexander Nevsky - Sloooowww Down! Andris Nelsons clearly understands the sound world of Prokofiev. The colors he elicited, particularly in the Battle on the Ice, were vivid enough to touch. So why did he not let us enjoy it? It sounded like there was a plane to catch.

The Bells - Gianandrea Noseda can be a fascinating musician. This was the least Russian sounding performance of The Bells I've ever heard, yet it worked. The playing was pure refinement (from the BBC Philharmonic??) and the tempos were slower than we're accustomed. This was The Bells as though written by Ravel rather than Rachmaninov.

Andrew Davis: Grainger, Elgar and Strauss - This was a fantastic concert from a truly underrated conductor. I don't know why Andrew Davis ever left the BBC Symphony, since their partnership works fantastically well. Some fantastic, rarely performed Percy Grainger. A very fine performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto - though not as great as Nigel Kennedy's performance from three years ago, nothing is. And finally one of the best performances of Richard Strauss's extremely tricky Till Eulenspiegel which I've ever heard. Fantastic.

Grainger in Folk - An absolutely fantastic idea, fantastically rendered. Grainger settings of folk tunes juxtaposed with contemporary musicians folk musicians performing the same. Fascinating and brilliantly played on all counts. An extraordinary concert.

Runnicles does Brahms - Badly. Too fast and sloppy playing. Is the Runnicles era turning disappointing? Count me stunned if it is.

Tallis Scholars - Why did I listen? I don't like Tomas Luis de Victoria - for me, probably the most boring of the Renaissance Masters.

Dudamel's Resurrection - Not as amazing as the critics say, not as bad as the bloggers say. Like Norrington, this was a truly personalized view of Mahler 2. I was put in mind of Leonard Bernstein's 1987 performance, but yes, Dudamel doesn't get all the nuances of the Mahler sound world. There was lots of sloppiness (recording edits make one forget how sloppy Bernstein could be when heard live), but the bigness of conception was there. There were wonderful moments, both explosive and reposeful, followed by half-baked ideas that clearly didn't work. But Dudamel clearly has the measure of the final movement, which was done with a spaciousness and uplift that eludes far more lauded Mahlerians.

Nigel Kennedy Plays Bach - Kennedy is still an explosively talented violinist. But he is not cut out for the austerity of Bach. His sound was far too aggressive, most of his mid-movement tempo changes didn't work. This is a violinist tailor-made for the 19th century Romantics. I just wish he played more of it.

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