Monday, 15 September 2008

When the Fat Lady Sings . . .

. . .it's all over. So the Proms Season of 2008 is over and done with. Thanks to all those who kept up.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Prom 72: Perahia Sans Pareil

Listening to Murray Perahia performing Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 felt like a privilege. Never had I felt before so privy to a pianist’s deepest feelings as I had done last night.

He was supported most ably by the stalwart Chicago SO under the experienced baton of Bernard Haitink. As a matter of fact, the sound reminded me of those magic recordings of the late sixties and early seventies which filled me with passion for the standard Viennese repertoire.

But Perahia was the man of the first half. His touch was so light, his instrument sounded almost like a fortepiano. I cannot liken it to lace because that might indicate fragility. This was a performance which seemed both to look forward to Beethoven and back to an 18th century salon while marking the genius of this remarkable composer.

Only an artist of Perahia’s sensitivity could bring this dichotomy and individuality together into a coherent whole to plumb a depth of emotion I associate with Beethoven while retaining that deft touch which is so classical in style.

Yet this was not the whole picture. To this achievement, he added something much more difficult to measure—which I can only describe as lifelong experience.

I do not mean the ease he had with the music which he knew inside out. This was so absolute you felt he could play the notes in reverse, improvise with them or even almost re-compose the whole concerto: I mean the sum total of the little bits of life which make the man.

I believe we were benefiting from decades of reading, absorbing, inhaling and ingesting Mozart.

We were privileged not only by an elegant performance but one imbued with a deep understanding of the emotional impact of human experience.

(Zeina Trewin)

RAH Live

Prom 72: Mozart, Piano Concerto No24 in C Major; Murray Perahia (pno). Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

(Apologies: there was supposed to be an accompanying pic, but Blogger simply wouldn't let me upload one today, and I gave up on it.)

Sunday, 7 September 2008

False Alarm

I may have brought it on myself, writing a little while ago that it was odd how two critics could agree about the general tenor of a performance, but reach entirely opposite conclusions.

That’s what happened to me about Prom 68’s Firebird. I found it extremely disappointing; my colleague thought it the cleanest and clearest exposition she had heard. In some respects, I would have to say that was true, but I thought the early tempi were very slow and too measured, overall it was somewhat timid, and only caught fire very late. I couldn't imagine the Ballet Russe dancing to it at all; one of the very few times I've thought I was hearing a "concert performance" of a ballet.

In fact, I wondered if that night Vladimir Jurovsky had been too conscious of the current chilly relationship between Britain and Russia after the scattering of polonium in coffee bars and football stadia all over London, and was therefore anxious for this concert not to sound too “Russian”. Certainly the LPO could hardly have been accused of that last Friday night.

I cannot recall any Rimsky sounding more as though it might have been composed by some Siamese twinning of Ravel and Debussy than the “Kaschey the Immortal” did. Nor anything more like a Grimm fairytale bowdlerised into a happy-ending bedtime story for small children susceptible to nightmares.

Where on earth was the Gothic horror of the castle crenellated with skulls? If I hadn’t had the libretto and notes in front of me, I would never have guessed, and even then, simply found it unimaginable. Where was the tortured princess? where the fear of Kaschey losing his immortality? Nowhere that I could hear. Even what I have to assume should be a fearsome window-rattling (or at least skull-rattling) storm sounded to me only like a small squall on a sheltered inland lake.

And, frankly, though I had had great hopes of the singers, they were mostly misplaced. The tenor, though of remarkable portliness (he had what used to be called ‘a corporation’ of some immensity) was colourless; Tatiana Monogarova was simply weak; and I cannot really convince myself that either Paul Baransky (Korolevich) or Mikhail Peterenko (The Storm Knight) had much of a grasp of the characters they were singing. It was only Elena Manistina as Kascheyevna that did, and she was at least applauded strongly in consequence.

It all showed, I think, the difficulty of performing something as downright odd as —and really rather dramatically intractable—Kaschey without giving it a lot of serious thought and consideration. Without that, as tonight, a rather poor composition (as I’d have to term it from what I heard, not having come across it before) slithers down the critical scale from second-rate to near worthless, and I’m sure much more could have been made of it.

As I thought of the Firebird which I felt was too Stravinsky-as-French-native too . However, I have to admit that by then I was suffering rather badly from an uncomfortable side effect of the painkillers I’d had to take, and so I think I’ll listen to the repeat on its own later to see whether I was being unnecessarily harsh. All the same, I’ve heard both the LPO and Jurovsky sound much better than this. Maybe my expectations were just too high.

(Late note: I listened again to the R3 repeat, and I must say that—allowing for my criticism of the singers above—it did sound somewhat more dramatic than it did to either of us in the RAH; my colleague agreed. I recorded the Firebird, so I may come back to that.)

RAH Live

Prom 68: Rimsky-Korsakov (Katschey the Immortal); Stravinsky (Firebird); LPO, Vladimir Jurovsky.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Prom 64: Yin, Yang, and Chaos Theory

I am a newcomer to Messaien but if I had to pick an exponent of the Turangalila Symphony, I couldn’t have chosen a worthier or better champion than Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil.

It is a large abstract piece but with a concrete core and an earth-bound effect. It is also an amazing exercise in juxtaposition: yin vs. yen; man vs. woman; thrust vs. pull; tenderness vs. passion.

This is a symphony of duelling duos intertwining then de-coupling with an energy worthy of a Picasso, though unlike Picasso, the 'Joie' (which recurs often in the notes)
is personified in the union between man and woman, something you don’t often see in his pictures.

The fifth section is in the form of a ballet worthy of a Gene Kelly musical as inflated and daring but equally fun and tongue-in-cheek until something very disruptive mischievously breaks it up creating a happy chaotic scampering, bobbing and clamouring effect.

Is sexual desire the mischievous child/clown and the dance the deeper layer of love? Christmas is here at the end as an eruption of utter joy pushes the orchestra louder than I ever heard an orchestra play at the RAH (NY Phil, eat your heart out).

Then follows the garden where lovers sleep yawning on a lazy post-coital afternoon, finishing with the chimes of times passing.

This is a very pictorial music once you’ve grasped the main theme (thanks to the programme notes). For chaos returns more destructive, random and cruel, but not entirely evil, just majestic and serendipitous.

The duality and battle of extremes fill the second half of the symphony as it surges ever louder into melody chopped and suppressed by chaotic strings (piano excellently played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and reaches a level of almost pagan awe which is remarkable considering Messaien was such a committed Catholic to the last. As if his love of woman and his Gallic rejoicing in the beauty of sex were not in conflict with his more religious beliefs. Rather refreshing!

This is a remarkably orchestrated giant of a symphony with a huge message of the wonder of human love in its heart, but it was also made accessible by lucid and clear interpretation for which a novice such as I am cheerfully grateful.

(Zeina Trewin)

RAH Live

Prom 64: Messaien: Turangalila Symphony; Berlin Philharmonic; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (pno); Tristan Murial (ondes martinot).

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

When is an Encore not an Encore?

I've just read (in the one and only review of it on the R3 'Review' pages) that the "clapping and stamping of the audience" at the NYPO's Prom 58 "encouraged three encores".

It didn't. I hated that concert—as you've read below—and left as soon as the Tchaikovsky was finished, to be told by two stewards outside the hall itself, just as the first encore started, that I couldn't use a lift (which I need, because I'm crippled) until after the third encore. They knew what they were going to be, and the approximate timings. I'd actually overheard two during the interval talking about a kind of "extra time" but I didn't grasp the significance.

I'm not naive enough to think conductors don't often have "one they prepared earlier" but it seems on this occasion at least, the "encores" were really part of the concert and were irrelevant to the audience's reaction. And irrelevant as to whether they were going to be continually enthusiastic having heard one encore or two . . .

It seems to me, if not disingenuous, to border on the dishonest, particularly for the audience outside the hall itself, listening to radio or iPlayer, who might on some occasions not be able to get a true impression of the audience's reaction. Might even be misled, thinking "Well, it got three encores, so it must have been better than I thought."

It's far from unknown for the hall to be only half-full, especially for a late night Prom, and yet for the audience to be far more enthusastic than the volume of applause might appear if you aren't there. Conversely, it's also not unknown for claques to make a great noise, and give the impression they are the majority of the audience when they are not. Listeners might well be misled as to why the performers gave an encore in the first, and none in the second.

I wonder now how many other "encores" this season were going to be played anyway, regardless of the degree of enthusiasm or appreciation from the audience? What happened to the notion of spontaneity? Or even the idea that encores are not always necessary, or wanted? Or sometimes inappropriate?

I have known conductors adamantly refuse a Proms audience that was obviously eager for one, and though we've sometimes felt a little disappointed—because it's a way of saying "we liked that so much we really don't want to see you go"— it's something one must accept. It is not, Mr Maazel and members of the New York Philharmonic, an inalienable right under the American Constitution. And since we—not having a written constitution—would have to rely on the Human Rights Act, for your informatioon it's not in that, either.

I suppose the NYPO is going to do exactly the same as it continues its tour, and mislead even more. This isn't a reaction to an audience's appreciation: it's just building an image of popularity—advertising, to be blunt—for an audience and perhaps critics who don't know it was all pre-arranged.

I'm tempted now to ask quietly how many encores there will be, what they are, and how long they will last when I go in to my next Prom.

(That will be Rattle, the Berlin and the Turangalila tonight, by the way; we'll try to get the review up on Wednesday, but I'm afraid—because I had to struggle down the damn stairs last Friday—I'm a bit fragile and more than usually crippled and in pain this week . . .)

Saturday, 30 August 2008

The Mother of all shows . . .

There are times when I wonder what on earth comes over Prommers, why they will applaud and stamp over a performance I think was barely worth a polite tapping of fingers against palms.

Tonight's Prom 58 (New York Philharmonic/Maazel) was one of those. My colleague on this blog suggested I ought to warn you in advance that I could not share their enthusiasm for Mother Goose, The Miraculous Mandarin or Tchaikovsky's 4th.

I left before the encores (all three pre-arranged: the Albert Hall stewards knew there were going to be three, and the timings, by the way) and, if I could have done so inconspicuously, would have before the start of the second movement of the Tchaikovsky.

All three performances were pieces of showmanship, and in my view (obviously not shared by a rather large proportion of the audience) were travesties of the music they are supposed to be. The Mother Goose, was simply flat-footed, splayed out in a soft glow of self-congratulatory playing that simply washed over the Albert Hall like Pears coal-tar soap; the Miraculous Mandarin a jagged unkempt mess that sounded as though it was some mash-up of three different SUV's  being run off a Detroit car production line without any quality controllers, and the best  that I would want to say of the Tchaikovsky was that it was often VERY LOUD. It ended like a high-speed train wreck.

When I see three-quarters of the orchestra on stage more than twenty minutes before the performance is due to start, and I realise that they are not tuning, but apparently rehearsing whole stretches of the programme to come (and as separate sections, at that) cynical journo that I am, I wonder why? It's not something I recall ever having witnessed before, and a horrible noise it was too.

I think I found the answer in the performances, because, assuming all three were Maazel's conception, then the members had to play in a manner that could hardly be called natural. Unless, of course, they had had too little rehearsal time in the morning.

It's incumbent on me, I suppose, to explain more precisely why I thought the Ravel was pitiful, the Bartok grotesque and the Tchaikovsky, well, 'gross'. In other words, the very tricks, shallow showmanship and idiosyncracies that so amused me the night before in the Gershwin, applied to tonight's programme, particularly in the  Bartok, I loathed

I'll fill you in, I suppose. Just give me a little  time to cool down. And hire a bodyguard . . .

RAH Live

Prom 58: Ravel (Mother Goose); Bartok (The Miraculous Mandarin); Tchaikovsky (Symphony No 4); Lorin Maazel, New York Philharmonic.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Prom 57: Finger lickin’ good, Jerry

There are piano concertos and piano concertos, and Gershwin's in F Major is neither, really; at least he himself called it a “New York concerto” which is rather better.

It is pretty well impossible, to be honest, to take it at all seriously otherwise. It’s a conglomeration of bits of other Gershwin with a piano obbligato, and that’s it. You pick out the bits from Porgy and Bess, American in Paris, Strike up the Band . . .

That’s not to say it can’t be great fun to listen to: and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel played it like a soundtrack to a Tom and Jerry epic: rousing and glorious, slyly sentimental, and a little unashamed closing-title weepiness before it crashed out in a glorious big-band wah-wah free for all.

In the first movement, it’s a grand bash for piano and orchestra, and Thibaudet certainly gave the piano a hammering. It was played as a bit of a joke, over-the-top, all Barnum and Bailey, just as it needs to be. The percussion certainly fizzed and thumped, with some great knock-out punches, although the strings did seem to me to sound rather thick in texture.

This isn’t really Gershwin 'classicising' jazz (or ‘jazzifying classical’) the way I’ve heard it played (both ways round) in the past; it’s Gershwin having heard it, been aware of it (I’d hesitate to say was ‘involved’ in it) and no more. But for it to work, the performers have to feel some involvement in the atmosphere of it, and both soloist and orchestra obviously did.

The second movement piano was nicely cool, almost post-modernist to begin with; this was Porgy, a little sad, a little reflective. A man who coulda been a contender. A piano that had been, and a heavyweight at that.

And thus complemented by pure, unashamed orchestral teary-eyed sentimentality. A perfect contrast with the roaring rhythms that followed: inescapably reminding you of those huge American steam engines with, seemingly, a dozen drive wheels either side, great long tenders and an enormous spotlight on the front driving a beam through the night before great trailing clouds of steam.

Maazel had, apparently, asked for slower tempos in rehearsal, but then decided the faster ones of his (very talented, particularly the expressive force of the trumpeter) soloists were better. It was a good call. It made him another conductor of 78 going on 18 for the night . .

So Prokofiev said it was “a succession of 32-bar choruses”; more, tonight, really, a succession of chorus girls, perhaps; and Diaghilev said it was “good jazz but bad Liszt.” Thibaudet certainly played it like Liszt (but not as though it was written by him) in a maddish mood. I don’t care if it’s not great music. I loved it. ‘Finger lickin’ good.’ Hey, man?

R3 Relay

Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F Major; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel.