I have to work on a WaPo review this afternoon. So there will in all likelihood be nothing new. In the meantime, enjoy 16,000 words of old proms reviews from my blog from Voices of Washington's day.
Prom 5: Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Symphony
Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schuller and Strauss
Poor Semyon Bychkov. He was supposed to be the great conductor of his generation. Twenty years ago he was world-famous as an example of moral courage for standing up to the Soviet system at great risk to his career, and so respected as a conductor that Herbert Von Karajan designated him as his handpicked successor at the Berlin Philharmonic. But Karajan resigned and died before he could make up with the Berlin Phil, and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union fell and Valery Gergiev took Bychkov's spot in the public imagination as the 'Great Russian Conductor.' After twenty years of declining reputation, his career seems to have resuscitated with newfound life that is mostly due to his partnership with the anachronistically-named West German Radio Symphony of Cologne. But this concert was his very last as their Music Director. Why is he leaving? If this concert was any indication, the partnership is not quite as fruitful as is generally alleged. It began with a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin Act I Prelude that was beautifully played but so efficiently paced that it begs speculation as to whether Bychkov cared at all. Like Lothar Koenigs a few days before in Die Meistersinger, Bychkov simply didn't even seem aware of or care how much power can be unleashed by Wagner. This was a followed by an exceedingly odd performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto by German violinist Viviane Hagner that was only intermittently inspiring. Hagner's wide warble of a vibrato was entirely inappropriate for Mendelssohn, as was her pacing - far too slow in the first movement, too quick in the second, and quite variable in the third. Furthermore, if you end the concerto with an enormous acceleration, why not do the same at the end of the first movement? The odd results made for occasional excitement, but far more often made this wonderful piece sound flat and uninvolving. Following the Mendelssohn was a piece by Gunther Schuller - the archetypal member of America's musical establishment. Now in his mid-eighties, Schuller has been an insider on the American scene since joining the horn section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at the age of sixteen. He is not only a composer and horn player of renown but also a teacher, conductor, arranger, editor, bandleader and writer of considerable abilities. The work of his played in this concert , 'Where the Word Ends' got quite a bit of bad press in the British press, not all of it deserved. To be sure, it's not an instant classic. But Schuller's eclecticism can be rather confusing at first hearing. This piece was nearly as much Blues as Berg, Satchmo as Stravinsky. It functioned as though Schuller constructed a stream-of-consciousness echo chamber in which all the various influences of a mid-20th century classical musician in New York were thrown together. In its way, it was a mass of fascinating raw material constructed far too chaotically to create a great work. Even so, a piece that should make people curious to hear a lot more Schuller. Lastly came a performance of Strauss's Alpine Symphony that was bound to be as fine as the fine recording these forces made together a few years ago. The Alpine Symphony is one of those pieces very easy to dismiss, and even harder not to love. It is Strauss's enduring paean to nature, vulgarity and Mahler. The kitsch and the sublime meld seemlessly in this piece, and for those qualities I love the work passionately . This was not nearly as hard-driving a performance as was given last year by the Staatskapelle Dresden as conducted by Fabio Luisi, and perhaps suffered as a result. It was a performance with the type of Wagnerian style that Bychkov should have loaned to the beginning of the night. His tempos were almost uniformly broad, with beautifully lush string textures and incredibly characterful solo winds. Under Bychkov's hands, the work emerged as a piece of hallucinatory tone-painting. A mountain painted by the more disturbed cousin of Van Gogh and Munch. Bychkov leisurely journey gave us a uniquely vivid picture of Strauss's mountain, unfortunately the vividness was offset by a lack of vitality which more propulsive tempos would have given. Semyon Bychkov may yet prove to be a great conductor (the Sergiu Celibidache of our age?) but he needs much greater than what was on display here.
Prom 6: Beethoven Nite
Paul Lewis Piano: BBC Symphony Orchestra Conducted by Jiri Behlolavek
Beethoven Piano Concertos and Overtures
"It was as though Lewis gave the performance I heard in my head from the time I was six years old. It is probably impossible to put into words how wonderful this was, so I won't even try. This performance had every possible quality this concerto requires and held them all in near-perfect balance. This was worthy of the greatest masters of the keyboard. Keep your ear on Lewis, he may already be a master." This is what I wrote about Paul Lewis's performance of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto two years ago. I wish I could say that lightning struck twice but this performance was not quite on the same level. Perhaps Lewis, having now recorded the concertos, suffers from a bit of over-familiarity. Or maybe he was exhausted from having already played the First piano concerto earlier in the concert. Complaining about musicality on this level is quibbling, but effects which Lewis integrated seamlessly into the whole stood out from one another as though the pianist were going through a checklist of things to remember in each individual phrase. His performance of Beethoven 4, easily the most difficult of Beethoven's piano concertos from a musical point of view, was nothing less than very good and occasionally inspired. It was paced almost perfectly, holding poetry, form and drama in equal balance. But that highest level of magic that he provided two years ago in spades was missing. All the evidence necessary was to listen to his other performance in the same concert. Lewis's performance of Beethoven's 1st piano concerto had all the brio and poetry his performance of the fourth seemed to lack. The performance of the 4th sounded like a performance by an extremely intelligent, conscientious but calculating musician (Aimard?). But the performance of the 1st sounded as though this were how Ray Charles would have played Beethoven. Paul Lewis still may be a master, but even the very greatest have better and worse trips to the stage. If this was a worse trip, Paul Lewis is still one of the very best around. The rest of the concert was filled by two Beethoven overtures = Egmont and The Creatures of Prometheus which the BBCSO performed under the baton of Jiri Behlolavek of surprising vitality. Behlolavek has been responsible for some Beethoven snoozers over the years, so it was a delightful shock to hear the BBCSO playing Beethoven under him with such life.
Prom 7: Maria Joao Pires plays the Chopin Nocturnes
Alicia De Larrocha is dead, and Martha Argerich doesn't give recitals anymore. So Maria Joao Pires is now the Grand Old Lady of the Piano. Like De Larrocha, she has that easy natural fluency that seems to adapt to the challenges of any composer, something can only happen with the aid of a fearsome musical mind. But like Argerich, she plays with an easy freedom, not so much adapting completely to the composer but adapting the composer to her own personality. But whereas Argerich's persona can seem volatile and neurotic, Pires is elegant and unperturbed. She's one of the keyboard's natural poets, able to conjure a gorgeous singing tone from the piano that few in history have ever matched. With Alfred Brendel now retired, she's almost indisputably the world's most accomplished Mozart pianist, and she does many other composers almost as well. Pires has been known for her Chopin for many years. She brings an incredibly sensitive lyricism to these pieces, creating a dream-like haze of sound that suggests far more than it states. But all the same, it's not the whole story. This is a perfect representation of the perfumed, 'French' side to Chopin - the delicate dreamer and seductive romantic par excellence. This is the Chopin of Alfred Cortot and Ivan Moravec, and it is great piano playing of a type. But where in this playing could you find Chopin the revolutionary? Chopin the Polish Nationalist? Chopin with the Slavic soul? No doubt Richter and Claudio Arrau would have made something far different sounding out of these pieces. But my favorite Chopin players: Hoffman, Rubinstein, Lipatti, Ashkenazy, Pollini, Zimmerman and maybe Yundi Li, found ways to combine the best of both approaches. Chopin's genius lies in the fact that right beneath his immaculate elegance was a volcano precipitously on the edge of eruption. Those pianists, for all their differences, always found ways to suggest the huge emotions lying just beneath the elegance. Pires seemed to cover up the explosiveness in a surfeit of beautiful sound.
Prom 8: BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Conducted by Thierry Fischer
Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich
Two overrated pieces and a flat-out masterpiece I used to think was overrated. Let's put the cards on the table: I don't like Prokofiev. Yes, he certainly has better and worse pieces. But I can't escape the feeling that a lot of his music is noise that expresses nothing except empty gymnastics, worship of technique for its own sake, and mechanical bombast. Listening to his first piano concerto is an experience for me not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard. Even a great pianist (and surely Alexander Toradze is one) can't make me like his music any more. I go out of my way to avoid lots of music by Prokofiev, and this piece is near the top of my blacklist. I'm sure that the fault is mine, many artists I deeply respect champion his music all the time. And certainly the RAH audience, who gave a rapturous ovation, totally disagreed with me. The Prokofiev concerto was preceded by Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. I am, as ever, a huge Britten fan. I think he's one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, but this piece is far from Britten at his strongest. It was Britten's first purely orchestral piece, and he wrote few more after it, perhaps learning from this experience that it wasn't for him. The piece is in three movements, and the middle movement is a fantastic and terrifying roller-coaster that these musicians rode out at maximum intensity (BBCNOW seems to have a wonderful brass section). But the outer two movements bare the marks of an immature composer who couldn't yet develop music over a large-span. Most of it sounds like long-winded filler with minimal material spread incredibly thinly. Then there's Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony: a 80-minute loose baggy monster of a piece that sounds to many people as though it's 90% filler. It amazes me how dense people can be when Shostakovich comes up. They point to the Leningrad Symphony as a perfect examples of Shostakovich's long-windedness, banality and bombast. But this is a war symphony, how else could he have written it? If it's a little too long, who cares? In any event, this was the kind of performance that does supporters of this symphony no favors. It was a slow, reasonably well-played performance that seemed appallingly short on Shostakovichian qualities like humor, violence and menace. There are many ways to approach this piece, but Thierry Fischer managed to pick one that gives its critics as much ammunition as they need. Ultimately, this was not a prom for me.
Vassily Sinaisky Conductor
Parry, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky
Vassily Sinaisky is one of those Soviet-era conductors who subsist on the international circuit by playing a steady diet of Russian composers. Nobody really cares how they would play anything else, and they generally don't try. But conductors like him, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Yuri Temirkanov and Valery Gergiev have earned their crust by travelling the world and introducing musicians and audiences not only to forgotten Russian music but also to forgotten Russian performing styles. Dynamics are more exaggerated, tempos are more flexible, and the sound of the instruments much more raw. Their musicmaking is provincial in the best sense. So it was doubly surprising that Sinaisky chose to begin not only with British music but unknown British music. Hubert Parry is now probably best known for being the mentor of Ralph Vaughan Williams, but he was a fine composer in his own right and still sometimes worth hearing. In this case, Parry's 5th Symphony was surprisingly engaging - Parry is a thoroughgoing Romantic who composes like a cross between Elgar and Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately the work is hardly a masterpiece, plenty of good ideas but Parry never seemed to know what to do with them. Even so, Sinaisky and the BBC Phil clearly appreciated the work for its good qualities and played it for everything it was worth. Then came the Scriabin Piano Concerto, a work Scriabin completed when he was still very young and not yet the firebrand he became in middle age. The slow movement is a beautiful theme and variations that foreshadows the genius Scriabin would later become, savored wonderfully by pianist Nelson Goerner. But I'd still rather hear these musicians play the Poem of Fire because the other two movements were made in the "Generic Romantic Piano Concerto Assembly Line." The concert ended with a surprisingly disciplined and restrained performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. I was expecting a performance in the Svetlanov/Gergiev mould with lots of tempo shifts and huge brass firepower. Instead we got a beautifully shaded performance in the mould of Rozhdestvensky and Ivanov that hewed closer to the score than most other performances ever dare (though hardly without individual touches). It was all in a far more classical style than we're accustomed to hearing Tchaikovsky, an equally valid and sometimes more effective way to approach Tchaikovsky that shows him for the great composer he is in addition to being a very emotional one. It wasn't the most searing Pathetique I've ever heard, but it was a damn fine performance and many conductors could learn a thing or two from Sinaisky's way with this over-interpreted score.
Proms 10 & 11:
Doctor Who Prom
I hear Doctor Who's an incredible show. But something tells my that I won't figure out how to appreciate it by listening to its soundtrack.
Prom 12: Sir Charles Mackerras Memorial
Schumann, Johann Strauss, Dvorak
Vassily Sinaisky Conducting
I nearly didn't listen. This was supposed to be conducted by Sir Charles, who until earlier this month was arguably the greatest living conductor and an inspiration to musicians everywhere. Unfortunately Sir Charles died less than a week before the Proms began. So this concert that promised to be a highlight of the season couldn't help but be a low point because of his absence, or so I thought. Not that it could ever be bad: Sir Charles chose the music - there's not a musician in the entire world with better taste - and Vassily Sinaisky is certainly not a bad conductor. But so many wonderful memories are bound up with listening to Sir Charles that you can't help but listen to passages and think of how the orchestra would have played them under his baton. In Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, I found myself missing things as simple as the extra spring Sir Charles always brought to the dance rhythms, particularly in the Scherzo, which was, to say the least, lead-footed. Even so, the other two movements were much better and Sinaisky didn't fall for the trick of blunting Schumann's rough edges which only succeeds in making the music boring. Then came an account of Schumann's Piano Concerto with the great musician-pianist Christian Zacharias. This was always going to be a highlight, and even if Mackerras is not there Zacharias is. This is Schumann as he should be played: always fresh, no lingering, always flexible but never so much that breaks up the line. I've heard slightly more dramatic accounts of the Schumann Piano Concerto, but never have I heard a rendition that made the piece sound so coherently a whole - the first movement particularly is often played as thought Schumann were delivering a manic-depressive rant with contrasts played up for maximum effect. The second half began with one change to the program: Sir Charles had devoted an entire half of the program to the music of Johann Strauss (try to imagine Claudio Abbado or Bernard Haitink doing that...) but one work was replaced by a Dvorak's E-minor Slavonic Dance as a tribute to Sir Charles - a wonderful and tasteful tribute since it has one of the saddest and most beautiful melodies ever written. I don't think anybody would have ever guessed that Vassily Sinaisky would turn out to be a great conductor of light music, but as it turns out, he is. Indulging in a much freer hand than Sir Charles would have, Sinaisky gave Romantic life to these old Viennese gems. A wonderful, and absolutely surprising, concert.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer Conductor
Cherubini, Schumann, Holt, Richard Strauss
I was beginning to wonder if Thierry Fischer would ever come back to life. Early on in the BBCNOW partnership I remember hearing some wonderful Beethoven and Berlioz, but in these past few years they've seemed to check out, phoning in more dull performances than are worth anybody's time. But all you need to do to hear what this partnership is capable of is to listen to their performance of Cherubini's Medea overture. Cherubini hasn't gotten much good press these past...oh...150 years, and the reason for it is as clear as it ever was. The fault lies almost entirely with Berlioz, the prodigal student of the Paris Conservatoire, who also wrote the most entertaining composer biography in the history of music. The autobiography casts Cherubini, the Conservatoire director, in the role of the sputteringly pathetic conservative villain. It would be nice to believe that the portrait is more memorable than Cherubini's music, but fortunately that's just not true. Cherubini's music seems to combine the best elements of Mendelssohn with Beethoven, and BBCNOW seemed to relish the novelty, tearing into the dramatic piece like a pack of ravenous wolves. Next came a very crisp and nimble performance of Schumann's Spring Symphony. Fischer hued extraordinarily close to the score markings, and the romantic poet who relished getting his hands dirty suddenly sounded like an elegant ultraclassicist. It's not the only way to perform Schumann (many people think the tempo markings come from his wife Clara), but it made for a limpid, virile performance in a piece that makes many supposedly better conductors come unstuck. Then came a performance of a percussion concerto by Simon Holt, called "A Table of Noises". I've heard a couple pieces by Holt before, and this one unfortunately this one was no diffferent than any other piece by him in that I can discern no coherent sense of form or structure. It's nothing more than a chaos of noise to which he tags a title, and people are supposed to froth at the mouth at how deep it is. And judging by the reviews, some people do. It got some glowing reviews and I don't doubt this was in no small part due to Colin Currie's percussion performance. But one should pity any performer who has to memorize pieces full of so much complication that it would sound no different than a random improvisation. More's the pity, since the concert ended with a performance of Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel that captured its light heart as few in the world have. Fischer set a daringly fast tempo to which BBCNOW seemed to have no trouble keeping up. This performance had that one special quality that can't be faked: fun. It was relieving to hear these forces play at such a high level after their first concert was at such a low one. Let's hope for more nights like this in the future.
Holt F, Everything Else A
German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen
Paavo Jarvi Conducting
Beethoven looks to be having a pretty good year at the Proms. Paul Lewis gave an excellent Beethoven concert last week, and now Paavo Jarvi brings one of the 233453 orchestras of which he's music director for a very good performance of nothing but Beethoven. The Beethoven cycle released by these forces makes clear that Jarvi is one of the world's great Beethoven conductors. Jarvi 'gets' what makes Beethoven tick. There's no tacked-on late-Romantic pathos, this is Beethoven as he should sound: explosive with all the jagged edges in tact. The concert began with a performance of Beethoven's 1st symphony that was simply one of the finest anyone will ever hear. Most conductors slow down the tempo markings in an effort to make it sound like his later music, but Jarvi seemed to know that this is Beethoven when he was still in Haydn's sway. Beethoven 1 is Haydn on steroids, and that's precisely what this wonderful performance sounded like. This was followed by a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by my mortal enemy. Now, I should probably specify that Hilary Hahn has in all likelihood never been notified of our mutual enmity (to say nothing of existence). But for any ambitious violin student of a certain age from Baltimore, Hilary Hahn is a name that still strikes terror. The 'little miss perfect' of violin studies continues to be more 'with the program' than the rest of us can ever dream. In possession of a golden tone, awesome accuracy of intonation, and a musical intelligence that leaves mere mortals in the shade. Everything about her seems so perfect, it doesn't seem quite human. And that's precisely what was missing from this performance - the sense that this musician is unaware that the incredible piece of music she's performing can express any feeling higher than the perfection which she seems to achieve so easily. Everything was so perfectly in its right place that there was no reason to care. Some people love Hilary Hahn because she plays like a goddess, but that's precisely what gets in the way of my appreciating her. I'm always awed by her, but I've never been moved. The concert ended with a rare performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that was too hasty. There have been many great performances of Beethvoen 5 over the years, and many more awful ones. Jarvi's performance was very nearly a great, but not quite. No doubt after years of suffering through turgid, murky performances it's nice to occasionally hear a Beethoven 5 that zips through it with too much blunt force. It can't be denied that Jarvi's tumultuously fast tempos and volcanic dynamics (especially for a chamber orchestra of 40) were awesome. But in order to get the full power of the work's enormous contrasts, there has to be more moments of repose than Jarvi allows for. But this performance got much closer to the reality Beethoven than many performers ever do.
B+ (Beethoven 1 gets an A+)
Prom 15: BBC Symphony
Oliver Knussen Conducting
Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Luke Bedford, Colin Matthews, Zimmerman, Schumann
Oliver Knussen is a fine musician. He writes extremely dissonant music that can still manage to be charming (he wrote an opera of Where The Wild Things Are), and his conducting never fails to have interesting insights into oft-misunderstood pieces. But it often occurs to me that in its way Knussen's insistence on all things avant-garde is a bit like political theorists who still think Communism is the most desireable system even after the Gulags. Knussen can make atonality sound more reasonable, but he can't make us forget what we already know. His concert began with Karlheinz Stockhausen's Jubilee Overture. It should be said, Stockhausen was hardly a terrible composer, he was merely a raving lunatic who endured terrible childhood traumas and wrote some decent music in his day. But even at his best Stockhausen is monumentally overrated - charmingly eccentric music is touted as prophecies for a new musical epoch. Sadly, this piece is Stockhausen at his most boring: nonsensical patterns scrawled around the score, piles of musical white noise which any listener can place upon whatever meanings they like. That's not music, that's a Rorschach Test. Then came a piece by Harrison Birtwistle called "Sonnance Severance" which was dissonant, loud, and mercifully brief. I enjoy a Birtwistle in small doses, he knows how to orchestrate and how to build to climaxes, but his refusal to allow for anything but the most stringent atonality leads to some crippling monotony. But this piece was all of three minutes long, and enjoyable for its duration. Then came the London premiere of Colin Matthews's Violin Concerto by Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz. Josefowicz is the polar opposite of her contemporary Hilary Hahn: her playing is full of eruptive fire, it takes enormous risks, and it effortlessly draws in the listener. I have doubts as to whether Colin Matthews's Violin Concerto is a masterpiece, but it is a fine composition and a wonderful vehicle for Josefowicz's overwhelming talents. The piece is not unlike Thomas Ades's violin concerto, lots of dominant suspensions piled one atop the other, but it seems to be done without Ades's genius for organizing them into great paragraphs. After that came Luke Bedford's six-minute "Outblaze the Sky." Far be it for me to say that some composers use 'too many notes,' but the human ear must always have a point of reference in order to make sense the musical content. Without pandering, this piece is far more intelligible than the other two new pieces on the program because it's organized around the principle of the 'glissando' (slide), and the orchestral strings slide from note to note as the other instruments intone a series notes in a single large chord that builds to a climax of real beauty. It is a wonderful piece that I hope we hear many more times, so I'm keeping my ear on Luke Bedford. Then came Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Rhenish Fair Dances. Though fundamentally a German atonalist, Zimmermann was too individual a voice to subscribe to dogma. Like Ligeti, he bristled at the strictures of the Darmstadt School, and was a finer composer than either Stockhausen or Boulez. This piece, like Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, shows the composer as a young man in a far lighter mood than we're accustomed to hearing him. If Concert Romanesc sounds like Bartok in his Balkan folk mode, then the Rhenish Fair Dances equally channel the more Teutonic volk moments in Hindemith. They're small, impish little pieces that take Bavarian folk melodies and put them through all sorts of weird polytonal paces. Finally came Schumann's Rhenish Symphony, and while not without moments of sloppy execution, it was a completely galvanizing performance and in all seriousness perhaps the most understanding performance I've ever heard, with all the German warmth of a Daniel Barenboim performance without Barenboim's droopy tempos. Knussen wisely performed the first movement at top-speed so that we could enjoy the hemiola (three against two) rhythm on which the whole work is based. Knussen followed the metronome markings in each movement as any period performance conductor would have, but with much more vibrant playing than the period crowd ever allows for. The Rhenish symphony suddenly achieved a fruitful, glorious life which this problematic work seldom does under less perceptive musicians. This concert is vintage Knussen, an always interesting musician who takes enormous risks, introduces us to unfamiliar repertoire and shows us unfamiliar facets of repertoire we knew backwards. Would that he'd apply himself to better music.
B (Stockhausen gets an F, Bedford, Zimmerman and Schumann all get A+'s)
Prom 16: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons Conducting
Wagner, Beethoven, Dvorak
Has the CBSO done it again? Thirty years ago they hired a little-known Liverpudlian in his mid-twenties to direct them, this unknown turned out to be Sir Simon Rattle. After eighteen fabulous years under Rattle, they hired Sakari Oramo, who only a few years before was an orchestral violinist in Finland and is now the director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and one of the most underrated conductors in the world. Now they hired a thirty-year-old Latvian who until then had only conducted the orchestra at an acoustical tune-up. The world is already ready to proclaim a third miracle in Birmingham, but perhaps I'm a bit more guarded in my optimism. Nelsons is a pupil of the great Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons, Nelsons looks, sounds, and moves almost exactly like his mentor does right down to the same Latvian accented basso on the radio. Nelsons has his mentor's talent for eliciting great orchestral playing, but interpretively Nelsons is far more willful. Jansons is very severe (too severe?) in his refusal to indulge in adjustments that diverge from the score, a practice about which Nelsons seems to have few scruples. Jansons didn't become a star until his mid-40's, and had decades to develop his craft away from the spotlight. As a result, there is nothing Jansons does on the podium without considerable forethought. Andris Nelsons is doing everything at once - Bayreuth, Vienna, Dresden, the Met - as though he already has a fully-formed musical personality. It began with Wagner's overture to his opera Rienzi, and where was the Wagnerian grandeur? Maybe too much Wagner can make anyone silly, but I missed those massive Wagnerian chords that hit the listener right in the solar plexus, on my laptop (a Toshiba A665 with fabulous speakers by any standard) this orchestra rang as hollowly as a toy orchestra. Critics around the world have already gone wild about Nelson's Wagner, but I'm not yet impressed that we've seen the birth of a natural Wagnerian. Then came a characteristically superb performance from - who else? - Paul Lewis, of Beethoven's second piano concerto. Numbering aside, it's really Beethoven's first concerto, and the most Mozartean work Beethoven ever wrote. Lewis plays Beethoven with an astonishing elegance that could easily be transferred to Mozart, and to my delight Nelsons was with him every step of the way. It was every bit as wonderful as Lewis's performance of the first concerto last week. Finally we came to a performance of Dvorak's New World Symphony that was exciting and alarming in almost equal measure. The slow movement in particular was absolutely magical and showed that Nelsons is a natural musical talent potentially of the Furtwangler/Bernstein level. He obviously has a wonderful feel for inspiring players, setting moods, and creating just the exact right sound for the right moment. But at the same time as that was an unmistakable sense that mannerisms were creeping in that would be easily solved. There's nothing wrong with pushing tempos around so long as it doesn't distort the musical material (often its necessary just to clarify it), but Nelsons tempo manipulations sometimes felt arbitrary, as did the way in which players phrased the same musical material differently. Many phrases were beautifully formed, but others seemed to go by without a second thought, a practice that would send Mariss Jansons into a rage. Nelsons is obviously a fabulous natural talent capable of giving enormously theatrical performances. He could be a Willem Mengelberg for our time, but like Gustavo Dudamel he's not yet fully formed as a musician, and it would be a terrible mistake to expect too much of him too soon.
Prom 17: Scottish Chamber Orchestra Winds
Douglas Boyd Conducting
Dvorak and Mozart
This was to be Sir Charles Mackerras's second and final Prom of the season, and had he been able to go on a little while longer he couldn't have picked better music with which to exit. Anybody who's never heard Mozart's 'Gran Partita' is missing out, but most people have heard it without knowing it as it's his famous Serenade for Winds which Salieri describes so memorably in Amadeus. Even by the standards of Mozart, it's a miracle. But before that came Dvorak's Serenade for Winds, which he wrote as a complementary piece to Mozart's when he was still very young. Dvorak's essay isn't on Mozart's level, but it gives just as much pleasure as anything else written by this most natural and human of composers. Some composers - Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Bizet, Dvorak, Faure, Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, Ned Rorem...to say nothing of Kander & Ebb, Duke Ellington, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Otis Redding, The Beatles, and Louis Armstrong - express themselves so directly that the simple act of listening to their music without contemplating any meaning gives overwhelming pleasure. Maybe Sir Charles would have given the rhythms a bit more spring, but it was perfectly enjoyable under Doug Boyd - who was also the principal oboe of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe before becoming a conductor. But Sir Charles's absence was keenly felt in the Mozart, a masterful piece that needs the hand of a master. A few years ago the conductorless London Mozart Players gave a reading of this piece which I will never forget, every note well-placed, every phrase thought through to build upon what preceded it. This performance was not conductorless, but far it was far more characterless. The piece can work equally well in a variety of interpretations, but the players have to bring commitment and fervor to however they choose to play it. In this performance, phrases were lobbed off with all the care of a dorm room slob. It was a routine performance, and no composer exposes the rote more mercilessly than Mozart does. If only we could have heard Sir Charles in this music, that would have been pleasure as only Mozart can give.
Prom 18: Australian Youth Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder Conducting
Brett Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich
It really is amazing that so many countries are able to round up their best young musicians for orchestral training. The Australian Youth Orchestra is yet another country where the young players can be put through an intensive program so that they can emerge with the ability to compete on the world market with the very best from everywhere else. Where do they get the money for these things? In any event, for this concert they were conducted by Sir Mark Elder who is quickly becoming one of British music's most venerable institutions. Having put the Halle Orchestra of Manchester on the map with its greatest period since the legendary 27-year tenure of Sir John Barbirolli, and having done similar things before at the English National Opera, he is poised to take his place with Sir Simon Rattle and Tony Pappano at the forefront of British conductors. But even the best don't hit it out of the park every time (as we Americans say), and this concert with the Australian Youth Orchestra was nearly as dull as concerts get. The prom began with the London premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean's Amphitheatre. In recent years, Brett Dean has become the undisputed composer laureate of contemporary Australia. But in a previous life he was a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic, and before that he was principal violist of the Australian Youth Orchestra, a tenure during which he played under Mark Elder in his previous performance with the orchestra. The piece has many fine ideas, but it jumps from one to the next without fully exploring how to develop them. It did, however, seem to be excellently played by the AYO. Following that was a performance of six songs from Mahler's cycle: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Young Russian mezzo Ekatrina Gubanova had a voice much too shrill for Mahler's music and sounded indifferent to interpretive nuance. Elder's Mahler conducting could only be described as 'too goyish.' It is wooden conducting, unsympathetic to the inflections Mahler needs. Judging by this effort Sir Mark, who can be so perceptive in Wagner and Elgar, doesn't seem to 'get' Mahler. And yet, there was still a Shostakovich 10 with memorable attributes. The 10th, one of Shostakovich's greatest works in a career of masterpieces, is not a work that easily yields its secrets. With it's brutal violence sandwiched between endless stretches of deliberate longueurs, it requires the hands of only the very best to be brought to life. For those reasons, I generally prefer my Shostakovich fast and fierce and I think Shostakovich did too, but Mark Elder never ceases to amaze me at his ability to sustain tension at the slowest possible tempo. In Elder's hands, the usually twenty-minute first movement was a full five minutes longer, yet Elder had these young musicians playing with the most fragile control in quiet dynamics. In its own way it was an incredibly impressive feat of musicmaking, but this movement is far too long to be able to withstand such treatment without getting bored of it even from the very best conductors. And unfortunately, the playing was not matched by equal commitment in the loud sections, which generally sounded far too refined to be healthy for any youth orchestra. Perhaps we could get the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra to fill in for them in the loud passages. The rest of the symphony continued in much the same way. Certain passages sounded wonderful, but they were intermittent throughout whole parts of the symphony that sounded listless and tired.
Proms Chamber Music #2
Navarra Quartet and pianist Francesco Piemontesi
Debussy, Haydn, Schumann
Originally this prom was supposed to showcase the interestingly named Finnish quartet, Meta4. Unfortunately the cellist took ill, and Meta4 cancelled their proms debut. In their place came the debut of a young British quartet named the Navarra Quartet. Not that the replacement gig was tough, it consisted of filling in on two repertoire chestnuts. Before the quartet was due to come onstage, young Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi gave us some bravura renderings of four Debussy preludes. Piemontesi played with enormous expressive freedom and charisma, perhaps it was the type of playing that seems better suited to Liszt at first-glance, but it was tremendously exciting pianism all the same in some of the greatest works ever written for the instrument. Then came a performance of Haydn's String Quartet op. 20 no. 3 - one of Haydn's darkest works from his Sturm und Drang period, it is one of Haydn's most difficult quartets to bring off in performance because of its many odd quirks in construction. The Navarra Quartet's approach sounded too careful by half, with tempos and dynamics that were the last word in moderation in a piece that demands Beethovenian contrast. Even with this extremely cautious approach, they caught the oddities in this quartet only inconsistently, with noticeable lapses in ensemble. Things finally woke up in the final movement, but by then it was too late to rescue the performance. Then came a performance of Schumann's equally difficult Piano Quintet that brought to mind an image of the pianist dragging the string quartet along kicking and screaming into taking some risks. The whole ensemble had a fantastic sense of the same ebb and flow that Piemontesi brought to the Debussy, but which the Navarra Quartet lacked almost entirely in the Haydn. It was a performance that was romantic in the best sense of the word, with lots of flexibility but always within the parameters of the piece's structure. The result was still perhaps a bit small-scale, but far better than the Haydn.
B (Piemontesi gets an A+, this kid's going places)
Prom 19: Sondheim at 80
Lots of Stars and the BBC Concert Orchestra
The older I get, the more I think that if there is such a thing as 'The Great American....' whatever, it's Stephen Sondheim, at least in my parents' lifetime. There's nobody in any other artistic line of work that has either his long-term consistency or his all-reaching poetic gift. How many creators of any genre are so gifted that they can show you the whole world? A creator who can make you laugh and cry, be terrified and become wiser, show us awe and create characters in which we see ourselves, and make it all seem as though it's second nature. Dylan and Springsteen can't do all that, neither can Steve Reich and John Adams, or Roth and Pynchon, or Woody Allen and Scorsese. But not only can Stephen Sondheim make listeners feel all that, but he can make us feel all those emotions at the same time. The only other American I know who can do all that is Steven Spielberg, but for whatever reason Spielberg has far more difficulty relating to adult problems. How many artists in history can do what Sondheim does? Shakespeare?...Mozart?...Goya?...It's probably time people started talking about Sondheim in that class (a fact that Judi Dench seemed to agree with when she spoke about Sondheim during the broadcast). But this is precisely why this approach seemed so pathetically inadequate to Sondheim's requirements. Some opera composers whom the bleeding chunk approach flatters (desperately avoiding a sardonic Wagner reference here, I gotta stop railing on him every day on this blog, it's almost like I like him too much to change the subject), nothing is more harmful than stripping these impeccable songs of their context and cumulative impact. Without knowing what these songs describe, there's nothing that separates a venture like this from a dinner-theater revue. You can class it up with the presence of the composer and Bryn Terfel, with Judi Dench and Simon Russel Beale, but it's still just a presentation out of music theatre 101. Those who gravitated to the classical world and unfairly malign composers like Stephen Sondheim do so more than anything because of presentations like this - that are completely meaningless except as a parade for the egos of stars. Classical music is no less susceptible to ego than any other musical genre, but with that comes a long and incredible history of integrity and searching for truth. And one day soon, Sondheim will be considered as important to the fabric of that culture as anything by Schubert or Brahms.
D- (would have been an F if it weren't for the informative interview with Sondheim at the break)
Prom 20: Wayne Marshall plays Wagner on the Organ
It's impossible not to like Wayne Marshall - a great organist, pianist and conductor, still one of the only black stars in a genre that desperately needs more diversity, and a fearless champion of both new music and new interpretations of old music. Marshall is a rare artist in the classical music world not content to play it safe. He takes enormous risks, and when those risks succeed they succeed brilliantly. But sometimes his risks fail to reap rewards for what he invested, and that's a shame as it was in this concert. There are few good reasons to play Wagner on the organ. It might seem like a good fit with the massive Wagnerian sound, but Wagner requires far too much of a particular kind of delicacy for the organ to provide. Whatever one's opinion of Wagner, it can't be denied that he was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, and his particular techniques for part-writing would not work in virtually any other instrumental combination than the one he provided. Royal Albert Hall is a massive behemoth whose echo can swallow any number of orchestral details, but the RAH organ is a behemoth within a behemoth, and the organ itself is perhaps too massive to be delicate. To Marshall's credit, he didn't try to compensate for the loss. This was Wagner made into pure organ music, and if the all-important contrapuntal lines of Die Meistersinger were made into a wash of sound, at least there was some gusto to compensate. After playing the overtures to Meistersinger and Tannhauser in organ transcriptions, Marshall played improvisations on themes by Wagner - both from Tristan and from The Ring. But I'm sad to report these improvisations were barely any more interesting than what preceded them. Musically, it was impressive, but I'm still not sure as to why Marshall felt the need to do this. There's amazing music for the organ that the Prom audiences rarely ever get to hear: why not a recital of Bach, or Buxtehude, or Louis Vierne, or Charles-Marie Widor. Or for that matter, why not improvise something a bit jazzier. If you're going to improvise on Tristan, why not juxtapose it against Duke Ellington or Thelonius Monk? It wasn't terrible, but it could have been so much better. We need more musicians with adventurous spirit like Wayne Marshall's, but this recital would never explain why that is.
Prom 21: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle Conducting
Berlioz and Wagner
Is it just me, or is it no longer easy being Simon Rattle? Even ten years ago Rattle had established himself as the pre-eminent, and perhaps the best, conductor of his generation. He his pick of any orchestra, any repertoire, any soloists, anything he wanted. But Rattle wasted no time using his leverage to tie himself down with the world's most pretigious position, Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. It probably was a decision he made with noble aims, but nobody should envy Rattle the time he's had in Berlin. For the past eight years now, Rattle has now been locked in a desperate struggle to preserve his maverick identity in a city that wants him to be more like Daniel Barenboim. But more on that when the Berliners come to London. In the meantime, let's focus on Rattle's one remaining permanent connection with his home, as a principal artist with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The OAE is a much easier fit for Rattle - a period instrument ensemble that exists to reinvent tradition rather than preserve it - and the quality of their performance bespeaks their mutual aims. The concert began with a performance of the Love Scene from Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet which would have made Charles Munch proud. It was a manic performance with enormous contrasts in dynamics, pulse, and color. Not for Rattle is the severe structuring of Colin Davis. After the love scene, it was time for intermission (couldn't they have given us a little more?), and after they returned came Act II of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. For reasons probably having to do with expense, the period instrument crowd has virtually ignored 19th century opera and especially Wagner. The benefits of period instruments were immediately felt when we heard natural horns that actually sounded like hunting horns - this is exactly what Wagner wrote for! What followed did not disappoint save in one area. Living up to his reputation as my favorite living conductor, Sir Simon gave a reading of Tristan that was neither the violent thrill-ride of Bohm and Kleiber or the slow German philosophizing of Furtwangler and Knappertsbusch. Rattle said that he viewed Tristan as Schubert on steroids, and for once we got to hear Wagner with a human face. There was drama aplenty, but this was not a vision of Wagner that tried to overwhelm us, it was moving in a way I had never thought Tristan und Isolde could ever be. Rattle had mostly able singers, with a visceral Isolde that lacked a little introspection from Violetta Urmana, and a solid King Marke from Franz-Josef Selig that did what it could to make the most of his boring twenty-minute monologue. But it was truly sad to hear the once-impeccable instrument of Ben Heppner's Tristan reduced as it is to such a state. Heppner has finally found a conductor with a conception to match his own, if only they had found each other ten years earlier the results would have been truly something at which to marvel. Heppner's voice is now in such disrepair that it seemed to crack midway through every phrase. It was a very sad thing to hear from this once incredible singer. Will there ever be a well-sung Wagner opera again?
B (Rattle gets an A+, Urmana gets a B+-, Heppner, sadly, gets an F)
Prom 22: BBC Symphony
Jonathan Nott Conducting
Mozart, Ligeti, George Benjamin, Ravel
Jonathan Nott is probably too intelligent, too curious and too self-effacing to be a great conductor. His music-making seems far too aware of the risks involved in great performances to take them. His concerts almost invariably look better on paper than they are in practice. The performances are invariably polished and well-organized, the programs are intelligent in the extreme, and yet you're left wondering how a person can be so intelligent and yet miss the essential element of what makes music worth experiencing. The concert began with a performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard as a pianist, the perfect counterpart to Nott - who can make sense of the thorniest avant-garde pieces yet sound totally adrift in Bach and Schumann. They performed Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 - his last - in a matter that suggested nothing so much as Mozart played with kid gloves. There was no sense of fun or play, just the sense that two musicians wanted to contribute as little personality to the proceedings as possible. The result was curiously quaint, like those old-fashioned romantic performances by Karl Bohm and Walter Gieseking that created a perception of Mozart as a composer of sweet ditties. This was followed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing a solo Ligeti piece: the Musica Ricercata no. 2 - made famous by Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut leading straight without applause into the London Premiere of George Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra. The change in character was immediate. Aimard's playing, which sounded confused and board by Mozart's simple cadences, sounded engaged and wholly convinced by this more complex fare. Even so, there are passages in the Benjamin piece of very sparse simplicity, and yet Aimard sounds wholly sympathetic to Benjamin's simplicity in a way he doesn't to Mozart's. I wouldn't call Banjamin's piece a masterwork, but it's still a pretty remarkable piece of writing in its way. What I find amazing about Benjamin is that he is able to extract music that is as interesting as it is without surrendering even momentarily to the lure of tonal contrasts. The concert resumed after the interval with an ingeniously-constructed snippet of Ravel looking toward Viennese culture in two separate pieces. Nott's fastidiousness dovetails well with Ravel's, and he was in his element, but I can't escape the feeling that these are not the Ravel pieces for which he's best equipped. It began with an elegant performance of the Valses nobles et sentimentales that was quite pleasant if hardly the last word in excitement, and it ended with a lucid performance of La Valse that was forthright, brought out lots of inner voicing and made all the right noises. But it was all a bit austere, this is Ravel without the blue suggestiveness, Munch and Monteux wouldn't have seen the point. But between the two works was sandwiched a pointilistic movement from Miroirs which Nott approached like a master builder and created ravishing excitement out of pure musical craft. What was missing from all this was the Ravelian charisma, the whiff of sensuality without which Ravel attains the arid precision of a swiss clock. And as enjoyable as clocks can be, Ravel without the sex is just not as fun.
Prom 23: BBC Scottish Symphony
Donald Runnicles Conducting
John Foulds, Vaughan Williams, Elgar
The shock that Donald Runnicles has returned to Edinburgh is still with the music world. It is so rare to see a major maestro exhibit loyalty to his hometown that the people were plainly puzzled at his motivations at what seemed to many like a step down the career ladder. But it's clear that Runnicles's principle motivation was to return home, and perhaps to give Scotland it's first authentically great orchestra. After year one, the results are impressive, while still remaining a work very much in progress. The concert began in a manner impressive in its own way. John Foulds's rediscovered piano concerto, the Dynamic Triptych, is one of the cornerstones of the very recent revival of this English composer who has known only neglect since his death seventy years ago. But the little I've heard of Foulds's music is frankly not very interesting. Like Alexander Scriabin, Foulds uses harmonies very creatively and like Scrabin his new ideas are probably born out of a lifelong fascination with eastern mysticism. But unlike his Russian contemporary Foulds seems to have very little idea how to put these harmonies together into a meaningful musical paragraph. The result sounds a bit like musical traction - a composer who doesn't know how to keep his pieces moving. The performers, including pianist Ashley Wass, sounded as though they did the best they could with limited raw materials. This piece was followed by two works written by a composer who certainly knew how to create meaningful musical paragraphs. Vaughan Williams is very much the great composer Foulds is clearly not, and any occasion to hear his gorgeous Serenade to Music - the piece by the way with which I made my non-college conducting debut...I was a little too ambitious no doubt - is not an occasion to listen idly. During the broadcast Runnicles spoke with great eloquence about how understated this piece is. But there was something a little too understated about the proceedings, the performance lacked a measure of that high-Victorian lushness and pomp which makes the piece so much fun. The soloists, from Scotland's Royal Academy of Music and Drama, sounded far more impressive as a group than as individuals. It was simply a disappointing performance. But a different performance materialized after the interval, beginning with the much-heralded debut of young Scottish violinist/pinup Nicola Benedetti. Concerns that Benedetti is a more photogenic phenomenon than artistic are unfounded, and she gave us a reading of RVW's The Lark Ascending that will not be easily forgotten. It's arguable that such a high-calorie sound as the one she makes on the violin is not appropriate for Vaughan Williams, but her playing was unfailingly passionate. The concert concluded with a dramatic though not quite searing performance of Elgar's First Symphony. Runnicles is an unfailingly visceral musician for whom passion is at least as important as intellect, so he and Elgar would seem like a natural fit. The performance had wonderful parts, but Runnicles seemed uncomfortable with Elgar's rambling discursiveness and the weak sections of the performance stood in marked relief to its strong passages. The scherzo, taken at a seemingly impossible clip, was thrilling and the slow movement had visceral passion in abundance but the outer movements sounded listless and longwinded. A disappointing concert all told, but there's still plenty of hope yet for this partnership and there's always Mahler....
Prom 24: BBC Scottish Symphony
Donald Runnicles Conducting
I ought to confess that I wasn't much looking forward to this performance. I remember a performance of Donald Runnicles with the BBC Symphony in a lethally dull Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde. It was worrisome that a conductor so persuasive in so many other German composers couldn't seem to get a handle around the greatest of all symphonists. But I needn't have been concerned because Runnicles was very much in his element in this huge, Wagnerian symphony. Like Wagner's Ring, Mahler 3 is a world in itself, a gargantuan epic which Mahler fills with as many different states as creation can contain. His invention was never as ripe as it was in this symphony and it comes to us without the fatalism of his later works. For me, much as I love everything by Mahler, the third and the fourth symphonies are for me his very greatest pieces, the closest he ever came to the human universality of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Any performance that captures even a portion of Mahler's enormously vivid world is pleasure worth making enormous sacrifices to hear, and even if Runnicles isn't yet quite among the greatest interpreters of this most challenging score (Bernstein, Haitink, Gielen, Horenstein, Levine, Kubelik...my personal list obviously) he sank his teeth into it with relish. Right from the beginning, it was clear that the players had few scruples about making the most of Mahler's most outrageous sounds. In the hands of unsympathetic conductors this movement can seem positively droopy, but Runnicles took the march sections at a heady Kubelikesque clip and the movement's full 35-minute outrageousness came to us in Technicolor. Another highlight of the performance was the incisive second movement, which was performed faster and far more dynamically than usual. Finally, this movement was much more like a sardonic Mahlerian phantasmagoria than the twee-and-cutesy way in which it's often performed. The third movement scherzo, perhaps my single favorite movement in all of Mahler, was a bit less satisfactory. The BBCSSO didn't play at the same level of character and Runnicles seemed to be pulling the tempos in the wrong direction (gradually slowing down rather than speeding up a la Leonard Bernstein), but the famous post-horn solo was wonderfully evocative - with Runnicles admirably refusing the temptation to linger on it. The vocal movements also had some problems, with playing that was too loud to be evocative in the Nietzsche movement and a tempo that was simply too fast for the Knaben Wunderhorn setting. But the contralto, Karen Carghill was a real contralto (for once) and the chorus sang with admirable clarity, if not enough exuberance. The performance ended with a breathtaking reading of the final slow movement. Runnicles coaxed a huge range of color, dynamics and tempo variation out of the players, and it was easily one of the finest readings of the last movement I've ever heard (notwithstanding a doozy of a trumpet crack in the extremely difficult brass chorale at the end). One day soon, these forces may be capable of giving a reading of this piece for the ages. As it stands now, not bad Scots, not bad at all.
Prom 26: The World Orchestra for Peace
Valery Gergiev Conducting
Two Mahler Symphonies (!!)
There had to be some schadenfreude in Valery Gergiev's decision to put on a concert with two Mahler Symphonies for the London public. Less than five years ago the choice of this great Russian to be chief conductor of the London Symphony was met with hosannas from the press. But just a year into the appointment Gergiev received the critical savaging of his career for his year-long Mahler cycle, which the press almost unanimously proclaimed a disaster. The results of their performances were captured on record for everyone to hear, and truth be told Gergiev's Mahler isn't quite as bad as all that. But as always Gergiev has some extremely individual ideas about how these much discussed scores should go - some are revelatory, some sound stupid, but Valery Gergiev is never boring. His lack of care for technical matters, his impulsiveness in performance, and his unfashionable provincialism just adds to the qualities that make him a unique figure for our time, as crucial to the way we think of orchestral music as Leonard Bernstein and Wilhelm Furtwangler were to theirs. Unlike Bernstein and Furtwangler, Gergiev is hardly a musician with an intellectual basis for his decisions. But in an era of impeccably trained musicians for whom repressing instinct is the norm, Valery Gergiev stands out as one of the few musicians great enough to always feel comfortable expressing his own ideas. And no concert idea is more individualist than putting two Mahler symphonies on the program. It's a nearly impossible challenge for any orchestra, let alone one that meets together for only a few weeks a year. Fortunately, the World Orchestra for Peace is a "superorchestra." It was an idea that originated with Sir Georg Solti (another much-drubbed Mahlerian) to take the best and brightest from each of the world's great orchestras (the first violin section alone contains the concertmasters of 15 different orchestras), put them together a few weeks every year, and conduct them under the banner of the United Nations. Unfortunately Solti died having conducted the orchestra only once, and in his place Gergiev has been the orchestra's director since 1998. Gergiev's Mahler 4 with the LSO came under particular drubbing, but I frankly never saw what was so wrong with it. It's an old-fashioned romantic performance after the manner of Mengelberg and Bernstein with enormous tempo shifts and exaggeratedly characterful playing. It's far from my first-choice Mahler 4 (that will likely always be Paul Kletzki) but it was a valid interpretation and quite preferable to the anonymous sort of Mahler playing that one often gets. Mahler 4 is Mahler's smallest symphony, meaning that it's an hour long and has an orchestra with a size comparable to Tchaikovsky's. Many musicians think that Mahler's scaling back is a cue to scale back the way the way the symphony's approached in relation to other Mahler pieces - a sort of Mahler approach for people who hate Mahler. But Mahler is still the same manic-depressive postromantic he ever was, only fitted into a slightly smaller box. Gergiev is one of those conductors who stretches the 'manicness' of Mahler to the height of its capability (and admittedly sometimes past it). Slow sections are slower, fast sections are (much) faster, contrasts are larger, the character of each episode is played up, and form is of secondary consideration - this is not Bernard Haitink's Mahler. But what am I missing? Why is this so terrible? The opening movement was fairly average, especially compared to the roller-coaster performance on the LSO recording with lots of Central European schmaltz and rhythmic vitality. The second movement had an unforgettable gypsy-fiddle solo from Vienna Philharmonic concertmaster Reiner Kuchl, who seemed to have no inhibitions of playing out-of-tune and with a truly ugly sound like an untrained country fiddler. The third movement was beautifully shaded with enormous contrasts of dynamics and pacing, the last movement was equally beautiful with gorgeously subdued orchestral playing and a wonderfully rustic contribution from soprano Camilla Tilling. The kinetic energy of their Mahler 4 did not quite ignite on the same level. Between the two symphonies, Mahler had changed substantially as both a composer and a human being. Having arrived at the top of his profession, having married the most beautiful woman in Vienna, Mahler began to realize that the fulfillment of his dreams did not guarantee the satisfaction he had hoped, and from then on a gloomier fatalism revealed itself in his music. The challenge of bringing both works off in performance is damn near impossible because the two pieces are so different. The opening funeral march leads us into a far more animalistic, terrifying world than the 4th symphony. Gergiev and his orchestra sounded far more cautious and tepid in the opening. The wreckless abandon for which Gergiev is so well known gave way to an unnecessary restraint. But the soggy first movement gave way to an exceptionally volatile second. Gergiev obviously saw the proximity to the tragic music that would come in the sixth symphony (which he does exceptionally well). The third movement, the twenty-minute nightmare of a dance, was similarly energetic but Gergiev's penchant for extremes finally did him in. The movement is simply too sprawling to carry the listener through without being very careful about where rubato is liberally applied, but it can't be denied that lots of passages were exciting on in of themselves. The famous adagietto was played with far more passion and contrast than is typical, with an unusually large amount of flexibility in tempo and dynamics. And it was wonderful to hear a such a wonderful string section tear themselves into Mahler's purple-prosed melody with real abandon. The last movement - a fifteen minute rapid fire fugue - was taken at a ferocious clip with lots of raw, nervy playing. The Gergiev of the final two movements is the conductor that stuns people, bending pieces like taffy to his peculiar visions of how they ought to sound, and doing so because under his sheer force of personality makes music sound like a natural phenomenon that erupts unpreventably. It's a once-in-a-generation talent, a gift that only Leonard Bernstein and Wilhelm Furtwangler shared among conductors in the era of recording. The result in Mahler isn't to everybody's taste, but it's a particular type of Mahler playing from a highly talented outsider to the Mahler tradition. It was often fascinating, sometimes insightful, occasionally revelatory, and certainly not dull.
Mahler 4: A-
Mahler 5: B
Prom 27: The Halle
Sir Mark Elder Conducting
John Foulds, Beethoven, Richard Strauss
It's a general rule, though hardly a failsafe, that provincial cities throughout the world boast better orchestras than the capitals. There are fewer other cultural institutions with which to compete and therefore more funds to be diverted. London's six full-time orchestras have to compete with one another for attention, performance space and donations. At any given time four or five may be on the verge of bankruptcy, all of them work the sort of concert schedule that would make American musicians cringe, and a London orchestral musician still makes less money than rank and file players in a provincial American orchestra. The Halle Orchestra of Manchester (now just The Halle) has existed apart from the London bustle as perhaps England's most historic orchestra. It was founded in 1857 and its former directors include Hans Richter, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Malcolm Sargeant, and of course Sir John Barbirolli. In 1908 the Halle premiered Elgar's First Symphony and Vaughan Williams was said to have marveled many times at how well these Mancunians played his music. The Halle has seen somewhat more troubled times in more recent eras but during the last decade the orchestra by all accounts began yet another golden age under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. Elder made enormous waves as a young man when he guided the English National Opera to a successful fourteen-year period belying the prevailing thought that the ENO was an impossible organization to run. Elder is a musician with a flair for the dramatic, but he seems to prefer long-breathed music-making. He seems to prefer slow tempos and opulent sounds, and it should come as no surprise that he is so successful in ultra-romantic music like Wagner, Elgar and Sibelius. But Elder also has a lighter side, with an enormous passion for the bel canto works of Donizetti and Bellini. I suppose it was natural that Elder would take to the ultra-luxuriant music of a composer like John Foulds. The Foulds piece that opened the concert, April - England, sounded like a lush piece of music with a tinge more Irish than English. Frankly, it reminded me of nothing so much as Riverdance. A lot of very respectable musicians sing the praises of Foulds's music from beginning to end, so I will persist. It was a pleasing concert opener, but as with everything else I've heard by John Foulds, I just don't get it... After Foulds came the great Beethoven we're now taking for granted this Proms year. Out again came Paul Lewis to give yet another Beethoven reading of a lifetime. This time it was the third piano concerto, and Lewis played it with mastery that I'm beginning to take for granted. How does this guy do it? The pacing is natural, the phrasing is always meaningful, and the tone is always exactly right for the moment. If the music calls for infinitely delicate sensitivity, that's precisely what Lewis provides. If the music calls for explosions, Lewis can do that too. It's matters that seem so simple, and yet they pose problems for every major pianist since the beginning of time. Great Beethovenian as he was, Lewis's teacher Alfred Brendel could never match his pupil's Beethoven playing (Schubert's another matter). Mark Elder and the Halle sounded a bit lackluster in the first movement, but in the second movement they provided wonderful delicacy and by the third they woke up and gave a reading that matched Lewis's energy watt for watt. Finally came Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) by Strauss, the composer's apparently autobiographical portrait. Over the years a lot of ink has been spilled about Strauss's motivations for writing such a shameless piece of self-promotion. Many music writers seem to think that this piece is a sort of Nietzschean portrait of himself as a superman, a sort of Mein Kampf in sound that foreshadows the right-wing Nazi sympathizer he would become in his dotage. But these people never fail to take into account one small problem: Strauss was probably kidding. Few composers ever had a less heroic conception of themselves, and in nearly all his programs Strauss would append literary descriptions that proved him as atrocious a philosopher as he was a great composer. If one swallows the philosophy Strauss claimed for his music without imagining his tongue firmly in his cheek, the music becomes unbearable. My love of Strauss was born after I was able to extricate myself from a conception of his music as being a more bombastic ersatz-Wagner, a conception supported by far too many Karajan recordings. But Strauss was far too earthy and cynical a man to believe in the sort of transcendent Wagnerian mumbo-jumbo he claimed for it. I often wonder if the heavy-duty philosophical pieces: Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, The Alpine Symphony etc. - are not just ways of mocking the people who take his music so seriously. It's as though Strauss is privately laughing at these people for falling into the kinds of pranks that would have made Till Eulenspiegel proud. Since I have such particular feelings about the composer, I suppose it follows that I have particular feelings about performances of his music. For me, the best Strauss is light on its feet, far closer to the world of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Johann Strauss than Wagner. Ein Heldenleben is a particularly deadly work if the conductor takes it too seriously. I was worried that Elder, the celebrated Wagnerian, would approach it earnestly, and the worry was absolutely confirmed by a pre-concert interview in which the broadcaster put the question 'Was Strauss Kidding?' point blank. But as far as bombastic Strauss performances go, this was not as bad as Karajan. The Halle strings were particularly wonderful, and the music at least got suitably nasty during the woodwind-chirps that portray the villainous critics. But Ein Heldenleben is a 45-minute piece with the flimsiest musical structure to hang it together. Anybody who approaches it too heavily will bore the audience by minute 8. A lot of the playing was really wonderful, the war scenes made a suitable noise (at a too slow tempo), but no attempt was made to rein in Strauss's rambling paragraphs in a piece that consists of very little but rambling. After this performance I don't think Elder 'gets' Richard Strauss any more than he 'gets' Mahler. I'd have much rather heard Don Runnicles in this piece and Elder in Elgar 1. In the meantime, back to Fritz Reiner to get the taste out of my mouth.
C (Elder gets a D, Lewis gets an A)
Proms Chamber Music 3
Brahms and Berg Lieder
The alien walks up to the German composer and says 'Take me to your lieder!'...As usual I think I'm hilarious even if nobody else does. Brahms would understand me, he always does. Whatever one thinks of Brahms, it can't be denied that his music a cornerstone in the repertoire of every musical genre save opera. You can make arguments that the 'real Brahms' is to be found in the symphonies, or the concertos, or the chamber music, or the solo piano pieces, or the songs, or the choral works. But the truth is that the 'real Brahms' is found in everything he wrote. There is no composer in history who wrote music that was so consistently of high quality. The four songs offered here were set to texts by Heine, who is now generally considered the 19th century German poet least likely to put readers to sleep (Goethe lovers address hatemail c/o Voices of Washington plz). Like nearly all Brahms's songs that I've ever heard (and I freely admit I probably haven't heard half of the 193 in my life) they are profoundly moving - less songs than mini-dramas in which Brahms tells a story. If Brahms was never write an opera, it wasn't from lack of dramatic ability (and he was, he even considered collaborating on an opera with Turgenev - depending on Turgenev's German, that would have been an all-time great collaboration.). I remember a comment from Pierre Boulez stating that Brahms was a fantastic developer of ideas but the ideas themselves were paltry. Clearly, Boulez doesn't listen to many lieder... The lieder were performed by Dutch baritone Hank Neven, who possesses a gorgeous lyric high baritone that reminds me of Christian Gerhaher with a bit more DFD-ish weight. This was followed by the Berg's seven early songs, sung ravishingly well by Swedish lyric soprano Malin Christensson. I always wonder if people who summarily dismiss Berg realize that his music is in fact...well...tonal. Schoenberg is close enough to Debussy to make the reputation far more intimidating than the music. But Berg's music is the lovechild of Mahler and Debussy, much closer to cabaret than "Modern Music." His music, particualrly the songs, are some of the most beautiful music ever written...that is until you start listening to Hugo Wolf. Hugo Wolf is one of those musicians whom you forget is around until his music starts playing and suddenly you wonder how you could have spent so much of your life without this music. The Italian Songbook contains some of the most beautiful songs ever written, and they were well-performed by the two aforementioned singers (though not on the level of the Brahms and the Berg). But I wonder whether all this Hugo Wolf is too much of a good thing. Lieder recitals are stupendously difficult to program. Most songbooks are not meant to be heard in quick succession, and after a while I was exhausted by hearing so many of these songs in a row. There was precious little musical contrast, and eventually you start wondering if they couldn't put in a bit of Paolo Tosti or Abba.
B+ (I'm wondering if I've finally gotten to that point everybody warned me about that chamber music becomes more fun than orchestral music...)
Prom 29: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Semyon Bychkov conducting
Dukas, Julian Anderson, Berlioz
I was looking forward to this prom, the best and brightest of Britain's young musicians are always worth hearing, and on youtube you may find a Proms performance done by this orchestra with Simon Rattle on the podium that is the single greatest performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand that I've ever heard. There are certain orchestras for which the Symphonie Fantastique is particularly designed, and a youth orchestra with 165 musicians is one of them. Combine this orchestra with Semyon Bychkov on the podium and this could have been a night worth remembering. Sadly, it was far from all one could have hoped. Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (think Mickey Mouse and a broom) just might be the most perfect tone poem ever written - with all due respect to Richard Strauss. It's a shame that Dukas destroyed so much of his music, because a few more pieces on the same level would have made the Debussy-Ravel axis into a triptych. This performance, unfortunately like most, was simply too slow and heavy to do full justice to the delicacy of this piece. This piece requires a Pierre Boulez at the podium who can give the X-ray precision this piece requires. It needs an orchestra of prodigious control, and it's simply a bad idea to put such a delicate work into the hands of a 165-piece teenage orchestra, no matter how talented. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't Dukas either. Next came a Julian Anderson piece, a composer whom I've liked in the past. But this was simply brassy Dada chords that had very little organization or coherence. I have no doubt that the orchestra worked very hard on the music but I wish all that hard work would have better payoff. Then came the Symphonie Fantastique, a wonderful but undeniably flawed piece of music. When one hears the Symphonie Fantastique in a great performance, with all its manic drug-addled passions brought to the fore, it sounds like a perfect piece. Great conductors of this work like Bernstein, Munch and Muti know that following the score in this work is a deadly mistake, and the gaping mistake is in the dead center of the work: a 16-minute evocation of nature at its calmest, featuring music so still that barely anything happens as you wait breathlessly for the dark drug trip in the last two movements. But great performances will make you forget the work's flaws and let you focus on the orgy of invention by putting all sorts of unwritten accelerandos: sometimes to heighten the excitement, sometimes to fast-forward through the dull parts. Bychkov, unfortunately, took Berlioz's score at its word. The result was a mightily impressive roar in Berlioz's louder sections, lots of expressive playing, and lots of incontrovertibly dull moments. I kept wishing for Bychkov to turn into Valery Gergiev and whip the orchestra into the kind of frenzy for which a youth orchestra was born for this piece. But alas, my alchemical wishes continue to fall upon the deaf ears of rationality.
Proms 30 & 31, PCM 3
This is, inevitably, the time of the festival that I develop 'Proms Fatigue.' Alas, due to work-related...well....work, I had to skip Prom 30 and part of 31. Prom 31 was just getting interesting when I had to turn it off (one does occasionally need sleep...). The BBC Singers did not sound at their best for Poulenc's Figure Humaine. One of the great choral masterworks of the 20th century sounded rough, underrehearsed, unblended, and badly in need of a conductor who will disabuse Soprano I's of the notion that they should take the final high-E even if their voices are not up to it. It was followed by a brass piece by Takemitsu, a composer I admire, that was so far from his best that I wondered why I didn't fast-forward. Finally, there was a world premiere by Stephen Montague of a piece called Willful Chants for chorus and brass. I was beginning to wonder if I'd finally become an old fogey who officially lost his taste for contemporary music, but this piece, an intimidatingly diverse melange of styles from atonality to gospel, was really quite catching. When we have the money I wouldn't mind....ah well. PCM 3 was similarly uncongenial, the focus allegedly being the Bach family. But well, maybe I just don't have much sympathy with early classicism, but the Bach sons are hardly a major focus in my own listening. Der Bachvater was represented by an tedious-sounding trio sonata (in this case violin, flute, harpsichord/cello) , and trio sonata from A Musical Offering that was, obviously, much more interesting. I love an enormous amount of Baroque music, but I have enormous trouble listening to Early Music concerts. Occasionally, they contain fabulous discoveries, but so often pieces are revived simply for the sake of having something to revive. With the exception of A Musical Offering and an encore by Telemann, the music consisted of period pieces that had no particular reason to interest people today (or me anyway). In 300 years, I doubt people will listen to Jakob Dylan or Sean Lennon, but I'm sure there will be some 'early music' buffs interested in reviving their music simply so they can say they did.
Prom 32: European Union Youth Orchestra
Matthias Bamert Conducting
Tchaikovsky, Janacek, Berlioz
Q: What's the World's Longest Viola Joke?
A: Harold in Italy
I wasn't looking forward to it. This was supposed to be Colin Davis's prom. It would have been something to hear the 83-year-old dean of English conductors in a program so directly up his alley. But Davis cancelled before, with rumors of a death-in-the-family. In steps the Swiss Matthias Bamert (whom along with the similarly initialed Martyn Brabbins is invariably the conductor who takes over these concerts), and I stopped expecting anything truly memorable. But after a shaky start came some Tchaikovsky of rare power. Perhaps it takes a youth orchestra to play Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet with the requisite passion (there are lots of dull performances), but for whatever reason, this orchestra was clearly inflamed. Tchaikovsky demands enormous commitment from the players, and I have rarely heard Tchaikovsky played with this level of visceralness. Some of the credit must go to Bamert, who imposed some dramatic tempo shifts which obviously paid off. Next came Janacek's Taras Bulba. Janacek is a composer I love beyond reason, but I never get my ears around Taras Bulba, a twenty-five minute tone poem that doesn't quite gel. There are all of hsi trademark strange effects in the music, but it never reaches the orgy of unrestrained passion we get in so much other Janacek. This performance was, well...better than most. Big-name conductors rarely tackle Janacek because his music is so difficult to ignite, but in a piece that is nearly-impossible, Bamert nearly succeeded in putting together a Taras Bulba of enormous (if intermittent) vitality. After the break came a similarly iffy piece by a particular favorite of mine. Harold in Italy just might be my least favorite Berlioz piece. The Symphonie Fantastique is the work of a young genius inflamed with the discovery of his own powers, but with Harold in Italy Berlioz took his first steps into maturity. The result is pleasant, but it feels like a rough draft containing all sorts of passages which he would later rework into greater music. This was the only piece during which I felt as though Colin Davis was acutely missed. This piece requires a level of precision that the Symphonie Fantastique does not, and what would no doubt have sounded like rhythmic vitality in Davis's hands sounded shaky and awkward under the baton of Matthias Bamert. It was, however, a performance that improved as the piece went on, and the "Orgy of the Brigands" generated a good head of steam. For all its flaws, this was a good concert and I'm quite glad I didn't miss it.
Prom 34: German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin
Ingo Metzmacher Conducting
Schrecker, Korngold, Mahler
Ingo Metzmacher is one of the great conductors of our time and it's a shame that the world is likely never to realize this. He has now established a pattern of going into a second-tier organization, pulling stunning work out of them only to stun them with a sudden resignation after only five years on the job. In his latest appointment, he had only reached Year 3 with the inevitable paeans hailing his work as genius before he suddenly announced, gasp!, that he must resign because the city of Berlin was unable to meet his demands for funding. Now that Metzmacher has done exactly the same thing with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester as he did with Ensemble Moderne, the Netherlands Opera, and the Hamburg State Opera, it may be time for people to wake up to the fact that this uncompromising maestro would rather stand on principle than make great music. And so, for the second time this Proms season, we listened to a fine conductor giving his last concert as the director of a fine orchestra which he is leaving for no good reason. Was this the awe-inspiring concert that such an event would merit? Certainly not, it was even far from the best concert Metzmacher's given at the Proms in recent years. It began with much-underrated the overture to an opera by the much-underrated Franz Schreker. Wouldn't it have been a far bolder gesture to bring a Schrecker opera to the Proms? Now that Janacek is finally a mainstream composer, Schreker is the next great genius of the opera-world ripe for rediscovery. But you could never tell from this rambling, over-orchestrated overture to Die Ferne Klang. One day, a champion will come to the aid of Schreker and give him the platform he deserves (in much the way Metzmacher has done for Karl Amadeus Hartman), but I can't help feeling disappointed that this is the most Schreker we'll get at the Proms for a while longer. After a disappointing opening, the great Leonidas Kavakos came out to perform the Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a piece with special meaning for me because it's my 90-year-old grandmother's favorite piece of music. All due credit to Kavakos, who bathed the work with as much Hollywood schmaltz as the work would allow. But I wish I could tell Bubbie that I love this piece with as much fervor as she does, but the truth is that I only love the last movement. Whatever genius Korngold is considered in a parallel universe, in this universe his greatest music accompanies movies. Thelast movement is a real 'toe-tapper' of an Irish jig, and elucidates to concert audiences that Korngold was a true purveyor of light music in the Grand Manner. But the other two movements are rather generic, and not even Leonidas Kavakos can make me listen with interest. Then came Mahler's much-maligned and misunderstood Seventh Symphony, a performance that won uniformly ecstatic reviews in the press. No doubt, it was a damn good performance. Metzmacher made fantastic sense out of the enormous outer movements of this sprawling five-movement masterpiece (and yes, the M-word applies here), with a Kubelik-esque manic edge to it. Furthermore, the second and third movements, taken at light speed, were fantastic. Textures were displayed with Boulezian clarity (not withstanding some brass clunkers), and the symphony's many dramatic qualities had enormous momentum. All that we missed was warmth, and comparison with Kubelik in this piece readily shows what was missing. This is Mahler with a touch of Stravinsky, done without the mitteleuropische warmth which you'd expect would come to these performers like second nature. And it is invariably in the fourth movement, the Andante Amoroso, where lack of passion/sincerity/whatever proves most damaging. It was in every sense brilliant performance, but IMHO not a great one.
C (Mahler gets a B+)
Prom 35: The Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard conducting
Ligeti, Tchaikovsky. Rued Langgard, Sibelius
The moment the Tchaikovsky concerto began, I knew we were in for a rare concert. Rare is the time when hearing Tchaikovsky can shock anyone, but after two Ligeti pieces for chorus, the sudden intrusion of Tchaikovsky's ever-familiar violin concerto came as a complete shock to the system. The first two Ligeti pieces, Morning and Night, were slight examples of this choral master operating at his cosmic greatest. Ligeti's choral music is still almost entirely the province of professional organizations, but these pieces are early examples of the Transylvanian master operating at his most tonal, and they were sung with wonderful technique and spirit by the Danish National Chorus (which seems to be blowing the BBC Singers out of the water). Then came a rare fever-pitched performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto that can make you listen afresh. I had never heard of Hagen Kraggerud before tonight, but rest assured I will be searching for recordings. Kraggerud's playing was positively Oistrakhian - an impassioned high-calorie sound, with enormously full tone and sensuously wide vibrato, and a total willingness to bend the rhythms (and occasionally entire notes) spontaneously in the heat of momentary intensity. He seemed totally unafraid of 'getting dirty', straining his fiddle well past the point of elegant sound with the rough Russian timbre this piece requires. The accompaniment from Dausgaard and his Danish orchestra was just as fantastically idiomatic. Then came the concert's centerpiece. First the Ligeti Lux Aeterna - a terrifying setting of a text that is usually used for consolation. It's not my favorite Ligeti piece, I like my Ligeti with more humor, but it is classic middle-period Ligeti in which he attempts to lay the demons he left behind the Iron Curtain to rest. It is a profoundly disturbing work, continuously producing ugly sounds that seem to emanate from the realm of the undead. It is not music on the level of Beethoven and Schubert, or even on the level of Ligeti's own Etudes or Clocks and Clouds or Melodien, but it is a type of great music that should never be ignored just because it disturbs. The Ligeti lead immediately into a piece by an early-twentieth century Danish composer so neglected that Steven Schwartz's guide to neglected composers doesn't even list him. At the beginning of his career, Langgaard was lauded as the heir to Carl Nielsen. But by the time he reached thirty, Langgaard was already forgotten. By the time he died in his mid-sixties, he was a church organist in rural Denmark who'd written sixteen symphonies and lots else, little of it ever performed in his lifetime. I'm not sure if the piece of his we heard tonight - the half-hour Music of the Spheres for two orchestras, chorus, organ and soprano - is a masterpiece, but it was fascinating. It was episodic and discursive with material that was never developed, but it was music that sounded like no one else's. Apparently Ligeti was a committed fan of this piece, and he recognized many of his own techniques in this work. Finally came a reading of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony that was among the finest I will ever hear. Very few conductors (Vanska, Berglund, Karajan) are able to reach so far into Sibelius's depictions of nature that the music itself sounds like natural phenomena. The playing of the Danish National Symphony was truly unbelievable, zeroing in on the fundamentals of the Sibelian sound world in a way that would even make Finnish orchestras green with envy. The tone coloring and dynamics were so precise and so extreme that you can only wonder at how they achieve such results. Dausgaard was equally at home and kept things moving flexibly and quickly (occasionally too much so). With his swift assertive approach, I was reminded of those old recordings from Sibelius's first great champion Robert Kajanus - though Kajanus could only dream of an orchestra this good. All in all this was hardly a perfect concert, but it was a pretty magnificent one which showed amply that Dausgaard and his Danish forces are likely among the most exciting partnerships in the world today.
Prom 36: BBC Symphony
Lionel Bringuier Conducting
Berlioz, Chopin, Roussel, Ravel
I'll never forget the day I first saw his name announced as the assistant conductor to Gustavo Dudamel. Bringuier was the first conductor to get international attention who was younger than me. And he wasn't just younger, he was four-and-a-half years younger, closer in age to my brothers than to me. A week later I found out that one friend of mine sent an article about Bringuier to another with the caption "Don't show it to Evan, he might jump out a window." Well....is this kid as talented as all that? Probably, but it's tough to tell in a program like this, because I'm not fond of much of the music on offer here. But even so, the light touch, the elegant sounds, the emphasis on precision and the fleet pacing immediately stamp Bringuier as a certifiably French musician. The overture to Les Corsaire was in every sense, a whirling dervish. Berlioz based it on Lord Byron's autobiographical The Corsair, and if the music does the poem any credit, it shows that Lord Byron was an exceedingly noisy man. Le Corsair is an exciting piece of music, but it's barely music. There was no attempt in this performance to disguise the lack of substance. The orchestra made joyful noises at an extremely rapid tempo. Then came Chopin's Second Piano Concerto with the underrated Brazillian pianist, Nelson Friere. Much as I love Chopin, I don't care for his piano concertos. The final two movements are always fine, because all Chopin has to do is write an extended piano miniature with orchestral accompaniment. But Chopin was emphatically not a long-form composer, and the opening movements are bloated beyond any reason for what their material can sustain. But Chopin could not have asked for finer advocacy from Nelson Friere. Friere is one of the great living pianists - always spontaneous but never mannered. Nobody can make the opening movements interesting, but Friere phrased the slow movement with Cortotian panache and finale with Rubinsteinian elan. After the break came another work of which I'm none-too-fond. Albert Roussel's Third Symphony is a work that sounds like Prokofiev: great craftsmanship, lots of noise, not much fun, I'm not sure why I'm listening. The performance made some impressive noises, but the piece has simply never spoken to me. Finally, a work I love unequivocally, at least in part. For all its occasional longeurs (except when Charles Munch conducts...), it's one of the sexiest pieces of music ever written. Ravel never made more beautiful sounds, and unlike Prokofiev, Ravel invariably puts his incredible craftsmanship to the service of something deeper than itself. This was a blatantly virtuoso performance with fast tempos and extreme dynamics, it was extremely impressive in its way. Perhaps it was too brash, Munch's tempos without his imagination, but it does show that Bringuier has the chops to bring off a piece this challenging. So let's keep an eye on him.
C+ for my tastes, A- if you take the concert seriously.
Proms 37, 38, 39, 40 Proms Matinees 1 and 2
Alas, work made me miss Bach Day. And nothing about that was more tragic than missing John Eliot Gardiner perform the Brandenburg Concertos. Gardiner has grown as a Bach conductor in recent years, leaving behind his image as a tense and unimaginative martinet in the 1980's where that reputation belongs. He was once a good Bach conductor who had an unfortunate tendency to overlook delicacy. But he is now an old master in Bach who performs with imagination and understanding, fully an equal to the Harnoncourts and the Herreweghes. I also missed most of the BBC Philharmonic's concert with their outgoing conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Noseda does wonderful work, and I was very happy to hear an early Dallapiccola piece before he met serialism. But I didn't finish the piece, so no oracular pronouncements for that either. Then came Prom 40 the next night, featuring my favorite young conductor with the orchestra whose fortunes he's revived as they have not been in many decades. Vladimir Jurowski is 38 and already the undisputed superior of some conductors twice his age. Like most great Russian musicians, he comes with all the passion for which one can ask, but it's coupled with a rare analytical mind. Perhaps Valery Gergiev reaches even more volcanic heights in his chosen repertoire, but Gergiev does not have Jurowski's all-processing brain. Unlike Jurowski, he can neither get inside the head of composers to which he does not relate viscerally, nor does he have the analytical mind to clarify formal relationships. So it's with great regret that I missed half this all-Russian concert, even if the first half didn't quite promise the great things I'd hoped. Jurowski began with a rare (at least, rare these days) outing of Rimsky-Korsakov's rearrangement of Mussorgsky's St. John's Night on Bare Mountain (or Night on Bald Mountain as it's usually known), but Jurowski did Mussorgskian things to the arrangement which Rimsky would never recognize. The playing was uncommonly vivid, with tempos pulled about like taffy. It was an uncommonly dramatic performance of an arrangement that fundamentally exists to take some of the drama away, so I wonder why Jurowski just didn't do the Mussorgsky version. Then out came Julia Fischer to perform Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto. I think Shostakovich's 1st Violin Concerto is both one of the all-time great works for the violin, and one of the greatest pieces ever written by Shostakovich. Jurowski's idiomatic accompaniment provided ample evidence of why that is, entering Shostakovich's stark world with all-too-natural aplomb. Unfortunately, Julia Fischer is tempermentally unsuited to the work. Fischer is like a German Hilary Hahn. She's a violinist of enviable intelligence and fearsome technical abilities. But her playing invariably errs on the side of cool delivery. Shostakovich requires a David Oistrakh who can imbue the work with more passion than people ever thought could come out of a violin. Give me Leila Josefowicz or Janine Jansen any day over this. Even so, the orchestral contribution is important enough in this piece that it was entirely worth hearing at any point. Unfortunately this weekend was concert preparation so I didn't have a chance to listen to the second half, which I looked forward to even if I don't like Prokoviev's Third Symphony. Sigh...
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