Thursday, September 1, 2011

Still More Thoughts on the Proms

Elijah: I'm not sure that there was a Prom which I more looked forward to all year. Paul McCreesh's 2009 Proms performance of Haydn's The Creation was a revelation. The greatest performance I'd ever heard of that perhaps greatest of all choral/orchestral hybrids. Elijah is a piece I like far less. Moments of the most hair-raising excitement puncture a work with all the turgid longueurs of an Anglican sermon. I had hoped that McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, with their painstaking recreation of Mendelssohn's premiere (just as they had for Haydn two years earlier), might have made some sense of this flabby behemoth. Instead, we got a performance like every other, only moreso. The big moments were more shattering than ever, and between them was the same generic noodling that we find in every other performance. At his best, Mendelssohn is a very great composer of slender, lyrical music of impeccable construction. This makes him a true heir to Mozart and a forerunner to Richard Strauss at his greatest. And as in Mozart and Strauss, lyricism never precluded drama. Unlike Mozart, both Mendelssohn and Strauss had the bad fortune of being born in eras that devalued elegance. But all his attempts at a grand, heroic utterance after the manner of Handel and Beethoven are hopelessly dull.

Haitink and Ax Play Brahms: It is weird to first hear the great Stephen Johnson and others talk about how Brahms has no greater enemy than his flabby, ultra-dull performers and then hear 3 out of 4 major Brahms pieces being performed in a flabby, ultra-dull manner. Bernard Haitink is a good if inconsistent Brahms conductor, which can describe Emanual Ax's approach to the piano just as well. Neither of them seemed particularly keyed into the Brahms Piano Concertos, which require enormous personal involvement along with the willingness to curb excess which they showed in spades. I once heard him live when he did a good Brahms 3 followed by a mediocre Brahms 4 with the LSO. This concert had a great Brahms 4 preceded by a mediocre Brahms 3. The difference was the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Both pieces are towering masterpieces even by Brahms's lofty standard, but the more massive textures of Brahms 3 lend themselves to a large orchestra far better than the more subtle part writing of Brahms 4. Considering that Brahms 3 was written for Hans Richter's Vienna Philharmonic and Brahms 4 for Hans von Bulow's Meinnigen Court Orchestra, I suspect this was how Brahms wanted it. Haitink's conception, per usual, was to stay out of the way. No 'unnecessary' tempo changes, all the parts keenly balanced and the dynamics always well terraced. This approach has lead to far more evenings of stultifying dullness than Haitink's legions of superfans are willing to admit. But in the right circumstances, Haitink's understatement can work like magic. And a great Brahms 4 is never to be dismissed lightly.

Dausgaard's Brahms: After his incredible prom last year, I had enormously high hopes for Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Symphony. To be sure, he gave an interesting performance of Brahms's 1st Symphony, if not a great one. Dausgaard's approach to Brahms is entirely different than Haitink's. Far more personal involvement, far more molding phrases, far more willingness to dramatize the music. Unfortunately, I can't help wondering if Dausgaard didn't err in the other direction. It was nice to hear Brahms unashamed of being a romantic, but the Brahmsian understatement was missing.

Gergiev and the LSO: Excepting Rozhdestvensky, there is no conductor who has championed Prokofiev more tirelessly than Gergiev. Even so, after these performances of Prokofiev's most well-known symphonies, I have to wonder how well matched they are. Gergiev’s recorded set of the symphonies with the LSO was a bit of a disappointment - underpowered, slightly sloppy. In this most obsessive and orderly of composers, Gergiev’s emotionalism at all costs can provide both the expression Prokofiev’s mechanical-sounding music often lacks, but can also dampen its impact. I couldn’t help wondering if the Mariinsky Orchestra wouldn’t have given much better performances. The performers sounded almost completely adrift in the delicate Haydnesque confines of the Classical Symphony - finally waking up in the final movement to attempt to keep up with Gergiev’s impossibly fast tempo. The Fifth Symphony faired better, but I still prefer a much harder, more mechanical approach in this work that more recalls Stravinsky than Shostakovich. Even at the best moments of these performances, the impact felt blunted. In between, we were treated to Leonidas Kavakos giving a performance of Henri Dutilleux’s L’Arbre des songes. Any five minutes of this work would have been lovely in isolation, but over 25 minutes, the repetition and tedium is unmistakeable.

Colin Davis and the EU Youth Orchestra - By now, Colin Davis is one of our podium legends. He’s been around for a half-century and given as many great performances as any conductor in podium history. But when he’s off-form, he’s really off form. The first three minutes of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements were frankly terrifying - so much sloppiness that I thought they were going to lose the piece altogether and have to start over. Davis made the definitive recording of this piece more than half a lifetime ago, and it is sad to think that his grip on this piece might have worsened. Fortunately, by minute 4, the performers settled into a good performance - far mellower than the fire-breathing Colin Davis of the 1960’s who played up every ugly sound for all it was worth. In its place, Davis now has a good mind to savor all of Stravinsky’s most pungent harmonies. It was hardly the revelation of yesteryear, but it was a fine performance all the same. The real revelation was Ravel’s Scheherazade with Susan Graham as the mezzo soloist. If Davis is now a ‘savorer’ (conductors who try to milk every moment of the score for maximum flavor: Giulini, Celibidache, Gergiev, Furtwangler, Bernstein, Pretre, Barenboim, Temirkanov, Thielemann, and Jochum all belong on that list too, among others), then there can’t be a piece that gives you more to savor than Ravel’s Scheherezade. Graham was a perfect mezzo for a piece that practically drips with sexuality. It ended with an enthusiastic, but not particularly comprehending performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Tchaikovsky 4 is a piece that requires a long-term plan - particularly in the 17-20 minute first movement. Davis never seems to give his interpretations much thought, he simply plays up whatever strikes his enthusiasm. In Tchaik 4, that can only get you so fa.

Bychkov’s Mahler - I can’t think of much to say except that if Semyon Bychkov does not record a Mahler cycle, the loss will be history’s. This performance of Mahler’s eternally intimidating sixth symphony was greatness personified with fresh insights seeming to pop up in every bar. Bychkov perfectly negotiated the fine lines between Mahler’s classical proportion, romantic effusion and modernist rebellion. Neither too effulgent nor too rigid, this was a vision of Mahler which grows organically out of German Romanticism at the same time that it displays his need to rebel against it. Perhaps there are other, still more intense ways of playing Mahler 6, but very few performances have ever brought us closer to the tortured soul of this work. And I have never heard as beautiful a performance of the already beautiful slow movement as this one. The hand of a true master was at work in this performance and any orchestra would be lucky to have Bychkov as a director.

van Zweden’s Bruckner - I’ve heard van Zweden do a wonderful Bruckner 5, and memories of that made this Bruckner 8 particularly underwhelming. Where was the willingness to spontaneously bend phrases and shape the music? It was mechanical, efficient, almost generic. Here and there, we heard individual touches, but hardly enough for this symphony’s 80 minute span which took 75 here. One does not need to play Bruckner slowly in order to reach his essence, but just as in Mahler or Brahms, there must be a sense of personal involvement. There was lots of praise in the press for this performance. Given that the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic might be disbanded by the Dutch government, I can’t help wondering if that affected the critic’s decision making. Unfortunately, governments will not be swayed by the quality of a performance. If the government want the money bad enough, they’d even destroy the Concertgebouw to get it.

(Later today, there’ll be thoughts on Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the American Conductors David and Beethoven)

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