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.

Prom 51: Passion with a Mission

There was something uncomfortable about the first 10 to 15 minutes of Gardiner’s St John’s Passion as though neither orchestra nor alto and soprano could control their tone.

Early instrument ensembles, in my experience, often seem to start shaky as though they need a little more use and room temperature to bed down or at least respond with more immediacy to their players’ will. I’d not met it with voices before. Perhaps it was empathy!

For empathy was key to the performance as orchestra and particularly chorus were one with their conductor.

The Hall was full which is always a good cushion to back on when your musical legs are about to give way. Prommers are patient and very understanding. So, notwithstanding the alto’s under-performance in his first aria and the soprano’s distraction in hers, we winced and waited for the dust to settle. The good news is that it did. Magnificently!

Marc Padmore’s tenor voice was so utterly pure and high, it soared clean and filled the hall with melancholia. The tale he was telling was tragic and he expressed that tragedy with the emphasis it deserved.

The orchestra was almost too good for some of its soloists (bar Padmore). It is a brilliant assembly of performers with a ruthless driver uncompromisingly reaching towards an understanding of the passion according to St Gardiner.

As the instruments warmed up so too the voices and synergy was complete. Jesus spat the German consonants with poignancy to denounce injustice; the chorus rose louder as the evening progressed, alternating between its 2 role of nemesis and catharsis. Nasty, cruel and superbly violent in the crowd scenes particularly where the jews were baying for Jesus’ blood on the one hand and gentle soft almost humble in the “lesson” part of their role.

The road to redemption is in the understanding of the morality of the tale not so much the miracle of it, but what it meant to achieve.

The chorus made that distinction abundantly clear.

Then came one of the unexpected enchantments of the evening: the second tenor in the aria “Erwage, wie sein...” with a voice which seemed to issue from the back of his throat with guttural long sustained notes punctuated by those expressive German consonants.

By then Gardiner’s reading was becoming clear to his audience. This was going to be a piece of patience and slowness where contemplation is in order and rushing only allowed in the arias and the chorus as it reached a frenzied fury of sound and chilled beauty in the one-word musical line “Kreuzige!” "Crucify!"

Our journey of discovery of sound effectiveness was now at its climax as Gardiner continued his lesson in timing and dramatic control where our patience throughout the long series of uneventful pieces (which might have induced stupor) was rewarded with bravura of voice and instrument.

The alto and soprano were now note perfect, sure of themselves, their voice pairing exquisitely with their alloted solo instrument; cello for the alto, oboe for the soprano and chorus for the bass, in slow contemplative heightened lyricism. A supreme reflection on the events which had been related to us.

The last chorus rippled its chorale like pearls of water, once again soft and slow but concluded in prayer, a tone reminiscent of a church congregation.

This was a thoughtful, intelligent and well-expressed interpretation by a band of assured performers working together in a complex network and controlling them with unflinching conviction, John Elliot Gardiner reading his lesson to us with uncompromising integrity. This was Lutheran Bach whose raison d’être was to guide his listener to a state of grace, in humility and awe at the tragedy of the story of the crucifixion. Even a non-believer such as I could not help but be inspired!

(Zeina Trewin)

RAH Live

Bach: St John Passion; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, cond. John Eliot Gardiner

Monday, 25 August 2008

Four more years! (Oh, and Proms 50, 51 and 52.) It's cool . . .

Of Proms, and then the Olympics . . .they're ours now! That handover segment—new version of the national anthem (played by the LSO) . . . a new 'Whole Lotta Love' (!) . . . . Cool or what?

Prom reviews of 50, 51 and 52 coming up soon. I spent all afternoon and the evening at the RAH, but see the 'Carnival' sidebar; you'll have to bear with us. I only got home at midnight, as did my colleague Zeina who's doing the St John Passion and who lives in the Carnival zone, too.

It's nearly 2am and the vultures are still coming round collecting the rubbish those 2 million visitors left behind, the street sweeping machines are trundling up and down spraying the streets and the pavements, somebody is playing jazz trumpet solos in the street opposite my flat (quite well, actually) but I want to go to sleep before it all starts at 10 am again!

Simon Preston did a really challenging and fascinating Bach organ recital, played so sensitively at times you could have almost believed that huge organ had the heart of a harpsichord; and Gardiner had a very different take on the Passion too, and I thought a very thoughtful, cleverly constructed one. Jian Wang was very technically virtuosic in the Cello Suites, even if No 1 was a bit too clever at first . . .

There are, I wish some of the audience would understand, no medals awarded for being the first to applaud. And grasp that when the conductor keeps his left hand raised, as Gardiner did this afternoon, the race does not start until it is down by his side. Pity they can't be disqualified for jumping the gun.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Prom 46: A wide-awake beauty

Prom 46’s Sleeping Beauty with the LSO and Gerghiev was a pure feat of theatre. By the end of Act 3, caught up in the tale, my ‘suspension of disbelief’ was absolute.

No smoochie soft-centres or artificial sweeteners where you least expect it. Gerghiev informed it with ‘Russian’ emotionality; occasionally like a grand gesture that almost slapped you across the face. And so tight! The performance was superbly controlled, always with an undercurrent of the darkly threatening which lifted only in Act 3. Shakespeare would have understood that. It was a ‘Winter’s Tale’.

Gerghiev led us through his theatrical reading as a dance of air and light. Even the ‘wicked’ witch Carabosse was no ugly hag; she hovered, light and lethal in the Finale of the first part of Act 1, and our Aurora was sometimes bird, sometimes butterfly. The LSO read his energy and his gestures with exact interpretative ability.

Act 3 (performed complete for the first time at the Proms) was an extended Hollywood happy ending, an essential release, well deserved after the darkness of the foregoing acts. And the evocation of the fairy-tale characters (not just the splendid cat, but Red Riding Hood faced with the Wolf) absolutely true to Perrault.

We do need to indulge once in a while in escapism, joy and laughter, never forgetting that this Master of Ceremonies is Russian to the soul by concluding this three hours of escapism with a hymn to darkness and majesty.

I will carry away with me a sense of operatic, grand, display of Russian sentiment tempered by a cool, accurate, restrained intellect, almost metaphysical.

(Zeina Trewin.)

RAH Live Prom 46: Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty; LSO/Gerghiev

Don't just stand there . . .

. . .stand up for something!

' The world-renowned conductor Valery Gergiev, himself an Ossetian, gave a concert in the devastated South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali with his home orchestra, the Mariinsky of St Petersburg.

Gergiev, who is also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, performed a requiem of Russian music for a city he compared in a speech to Stalingrad.

As the orchestra performed with South Ossetia's shattered parliament building as a backdrop, soldiers and civilians listened side by side.

Gergiev told his audience - and the world - that Georgia, not Russia had been the aggressor. "We know how much people suffered," he said in English.

"We know how much these children suffered, old people. Let's not allow it to happen ever again. And I want to say if it was not for the help from the Russian army there would be more casualties, more victims - thousands and thousands more." '

In all the swamp of propaganda orchestrated from the USA of late, and, I regret, followed largely by the Brits, Gergiev is saying something we are in danger of forgetting.


Late music warning . . .

No, I won't. Give up writing about 'contemporary' music. So I did listen to Prom 48 (but not the Mahler) for the Stockhausen, which I will be reviewing, though I suppose it will frighten readers away again like it did last time.

I'm very awkward  and difficult to please about two things: one is Mahler, who I kind of brought myself to some sort of musical maturity with at the ages of 16 and 17, when I listened to hardly anything else, so even now I don't want to risk a disappointment, and the other is Leonore No3, which I should probably be banned from ever reviewing for a different reason.

That's because a very old recording, found in my grandmother's forgotten box of records, was what must have introduced me to classical music at the age of about eight or nine. I can still hear how I want it to be in my head, even after all these years.

Though the Gurzenich orchestra had some nice bits in it (offstage trumpets? rousing timpani) I thought their Leonore had a rather heavy undertow to it that stopped it swimming up to the sparkling surface. And I don't think the Parsifal encore was ever going to make it into the sunlit uplands.

Still, if you think I'm wrong and I should listen to the Mahler 5, you'd better tell me within the next week. I'm not going to tell you when the Stockhausen Punkte will appear; it'll be a nice surprise, won't it?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Prom 45: Liquid Architecture

Anybody can do it, can’t they? All you need is a computer, Garageband and, or, the sort of audio editing software I use, and there we are. No simple two-track tape; how many do you want? Eight, sixteen, forty eight? Dolby Surround? 5.1? So why is it worth bothering about this old curmudgeonly bear of a bloke called Edgar Varèse?

It’s simple really. Varèse could imagine a musical concept, and create it as a whole. And an awful lot of people playing with their computers are really just patching together ‘found sounds’ and they don’t have that. Maybe, as Boulez said in the interval ‘bio’, with “more knowledge of musical language” he would have gone further, but I think I hear an IRCAM philosophy talking here. I’ve never really seen Varèse as a composer of music, but a creator of soundstages. Of sound events. Of sonic buildings.

And Poème électronique (doesn’t that title remind you of ‘poème concrête’? I think it should) is a construction: just listen to the way some sounds are carefully repeated, how they carry a kind of flowing motion of the kind you get in the curves of Le Corbusier buildings. How they cycle: and of course, we are thinking electronics here, so we should also be thinking ‘kilocycles’ as well as kilohertz. Yet even this short piece can deliberately startle you with a heart-stopping—purely human—scream.

Yet, on a very simple level, you can listen to it simply as a sound image of a city; but these sounds are not mere imitations of footsteps and construction work (or even the unnerving whistle of a steam engine that, like the ‘footsteps’ has a human echo instead of, like others, an electronic one). They are the sounds you hear just before it gets light, when you cannot be sure they were real, in a dream you have just woken from and cannot quite recall, or ones you have simply imagined. They have come to exist outside reality, only in some inner one. They are the sounds heard by someone who is separate from all the rest of us, the ‘outsider’ of Camus. And you can feel yourself taking up that very lonely distance as you listen. That scream says “Why am I out here. . ?”

Apparently Varèse said of a contemporary composer: “He creates shit and gets paid in gold. I create gold and get . . .) Forget that this is a relatively simple piece in its technology. That’s irrelevant. It is a little nugget of gold.

It’s been said Philips were somewhat ambivalent about the Poème électronique at their Brussels pavilion fifty years ago, but I can’t altogether credit that. If they were lukewarm about this kind of music, then they certainly made up for it within a couple of decades or so with their superb Xenakis recordings. I liked the silvery sleeves, too.

He would have laughed, very sardonically I think. Transferring my digital recording of
Déserts from one computer to another, I found (after I'd deleted the original) I hadn't copied all my data files for it, so my software helpfully interpolated hundreds of bars of silence. Now if I'd recorded that on my two track reel-to-reel, that wouldn't have happened, would it? Anyway, I want to listen to all of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings instead of just the last few minutes, so I'll listen to the repeat on R3 in a few days. Prom 45 'sounds' as though it was a very intriguing programme.

R3 Relay

Prom 45:
Poème électronique

Hitting the G-Spot

G as in Gerghiev, of course. And as in Prom 46 with the LSO (in brilliant form, particularly the Leader, who delivered a hauntingly beautiful solo)  playing Sleeping Beauty. (The full version, which we are not that likely to hear again.) I was a little surprised that it seemed to take the audience a while to warm to it, but the thing about Gerghiev is that he constructs his performances with tremendous integrity: he knows where he's going, you follow. And you have to keep your wits about you from the very first few bars, or you won't get it for ages.

A glorious performance, like an Eisenstein film in sonic technicolour, and you could 'see' the story in your mind just as you do listening to a fairytale told you before you've learnt to read it for yourself. Very different to the kind of performance you might imagine from reading the notes, too.

Until tomorrow, however, that's all you'll get, because I've cajoled a friend, who's in London for her annual Proms fix, to write this one up for me to make a bit of a change. And if you didn't listen to it, off with you to the iPlayer at once. As far as I can see, it won't be repeated next week on R3 (or any other time, except possibly in the autumn or spring) in the afternoon, alas.

Some prommers in the Arena just hadn't been concentrating the way they're supposed to. How on earth could you possibly end up so uninvolved and unabsorbed  in a performance like this, and towards the end of Act 3, so you prefer to haul out your mobile phone and read your text messages? (I was momentarily distracted by the blue glow.) Apart from the fact they (there were two of them) shouldn't have had the damn things switched on anyway.

Which reminds me: listening to a few minutes here and there editing things like the interval talk and announcer chatter out of my recording when I got home, I can assure you that the R3 broadcast was about as close to what you would hear from a good seat in the hall as you could get.

(By the way, if you want to hear a broadcast Prom just the way the engineers do in their OB van, you'll need to invest in a pair of Dynaudio Acoustics AIR speakers . . .I asked . . .)

RAH Live

Prom 46: Valery Gerghiev, LSO; Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty 

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Bad language . . .

An email from the BBC: "I understand you have been trying to post a message on the Message Board. . .The BBCi Player Messageboards will only allow posts that are in English, and your post appears to include words that are not."

Well, even given the number of English/British/American pieces at the Proms this year, there's still a fair chance a post about a Prom would, wouldn't it? Does that mean we have to translate 'ritardando' or 'molto vivace'? There are times . . .

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Wails and Whales

For various reasons (a friend's birthday being just one, and needing to conserve my energy, such as it is, for actually going to the RAH tomorrow for Gerghiev, another) I hadn't intended to listen to the Jonathan Harvey part of  Prom 45, but I caught just a few minutes of 'Speakings' because the concert seemed to be running late.

I was quite entranced by what seemed like a sonic philosophical dialogue between whales and dolphins, being a bit prosaic about it.  It will have to wait until the R3 repeat next week, though, now, before I can listen to it properly. I suggest you try it on the iPlayer in the meantime if you didn't hear it. 

The Varese (which I was longing to hear again) I've recorded, however, and I'll try to write that up soon. I was rather struck by how well the two composers may have fitted together in this Prom, but I could be wrong . . .

I see whoever uploads the notes to the 'About the Music' pages has done it again! The Varese links are the wrong way round. Get a grip over there, will you?

(Why is it every time I write about somebody like Stockhausen, Varese or Messaien, half my readers disappear? They aren't communicable diseases, you know! Some of these pieces are half a century old, or more, and composers didn't become extinct about 1870 . . . I'm getting upset. It'll be Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty tomorrow, OK, so you can come back now! )

Prom 43: Consider the lilies of the field . . .

I first came across Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi many years ago in a recording (it could well have been the only one around, though mine was second hand) by the University of Utah Chamber Choir and Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. Not one of the greatest orchestras, and it was an absolutely terrible recording technically, but I was fascinated by the music.

It was so different to the ‘Lark Ascending Vaughan Williams’ I’d been taught to despise, an artificial dogmatism that it took me years to overcome. I wasn’t confident enough then to withstand peer pressure; in fact, I still feel a bit twitchy about my current faves and pet hates, so I admit to covertly sneaking away from here sometimes to see if, somewhere, just one other proper professional reviewer might agree with me. There’s comfort even in the midst of a flock of vultures. . .But I never could seem to persuade other people to like it.*

And of course, I was young enough still to remember the guilty erotic frisson of reading, as a teenager, the Song of Solomon free of the ‘love for the church’ gloss that, like Vaughan Williams, I’d come to scorn and never found in the least plausible, though I must admit I think the foot fetishism of the epigraph to Part 6 of Flos Campi eluded me then.

I wonder if people don’t release themselves into the sensuality of it? Or even its sexuality, because in parts it really is: in this performance the chorus sounds near to an orgasm at one point, and the first section, which the oboe and viola share, creates an air of sexual longing that’s hard to beat.

I realise there are places (as when we have harp and chorus) that could easily be dismissed as sentimental, but that is not to be involved. Something tells me that to really grasp Flos Campi , to allow yourself to flow into it, you have to have had both gentle, loving erotic sex, and to have desperately missed having it. And I defy anyone not to sense spring petals opening and cheeks blooming in the ‘For lo, the winter is past’.

The chorus, in this piece, has to be heard as much as a part of the orchestra as any of the instrumental sections: more so, since the concentration is so much on that intensely sensual viola. (In the performance tonight it was only—I think rightly—”husky with passion” in part three. Elsewhere it was delicately sensual and longing.) Lawrence Power played it beautifully.

And then, of course, there is a gently jokey little piece of fake orientalism in the “Palanquin” processional; about the only place where you remember there is a whole orchestra here somewhere apart from the viola and the chorus.

And I can’t imagine that the penultimate section doesn’t really convey that “eyes across a crowded room” sensation to anybody. And the last moments of the viola fade in real tenderness and lovelorn-ness. Flos Campi is a love story, and, it's just dawned on me, a kind of virtual ballad sung only in sounds. Unusual in its form, it may be, but I still can’t see why it’s so easily dismissed.

Maybe it makes the English nervous? They’ve been brought up with all that subconscious Puritanism? I can’t persuade you? Try listening to it in the bath, with scented candles, a glass of something lightly fizzy and maybe a companion . . .

R3 relay

Prom 43: City of London Sinfonia, Lawrence Power (viola), BBC singers, Richard Hickox; Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi

*I can see from one dismissive
review by someone who is around the age now I was then, I’m still likely to find it difficult.

Attuned to the audience

I'd meant to mention in the review of the Glagolitic Mass that Boulez had, I thought, rather longer pauses than usual between the sections. To allow the more bronchitic members of the audience plenty of time to get their coughing out of the way before the music got going again? He had been in one of the boxes the night before, I gather, so he must have noticed how bad it seems to be this year. . .

(I don't really like splattering personal messages about, but perhaps I should offer an apology to my own regular 'audience': there might be a hiatus in this blog for a day or two, since just at the moment I'm suffering from a bit more pain than usual, and also somewhat from the side-effects of the drugs I take to try to kill it. So don't assume I've gone to watch the Olympics instead . . .)

Monday, 18 August 2008

Permanent ink, indelible performances

I’m not going to suggest that written music criticism (and certainly not mine, if you’re nice enough to let me call it that in the first place) is, or even should be, permanent. Some does last, of course, and we re-read it to grasp a flavour of an historic performance, or interpretation (Cardus?) or for its literary style (Shaw?). Or maybe, in the case of one more current standard-bearer, just schadenfreude . . .

What has struck me fairly forcibly again this year, pace Paul Daniel’s comment I quoted earlier, is how often people appear to confuse live performance with recorded performance. They are two entirely different things. Even when a live performance is recorded, it is rare now for even a ‘live recording’ not actually to be in fact the product of more than one performance and even a rehearsal or two. A recording is generally treated as if it is to be permanent, repeatable, historic record. Sorry about the pun, I can’t get around it.

A concert is simply the product of the circumstances of the time it was performed. In that sense, it is impermanent, ephemeral, of the moment. We might remember it, if it is particularly rare, innovatory, well-played, or just jibed well with our own mood at the time, but it is wrong to treat it as though it should be preserved even if we’ve recorded it ourselves.

Two things in a lot of writing about the Proms (particularly on the R3 Message Board this year) have struck me as being, in this context, a little foolish and mistaken. One is to criticise a live performance as though it should achieve the equivalent of the perfection that can be obtained technically in a studio recording. There a cracked horn, an early entry, can be replaced or corrected. It can’t be in a live performance, and I don’t see why people should make a fuss about it when it happens.

If you hear that on a recording, well, of course, that is unprofessional: simply because it’s meant to be heard more than once, and will become irritating the second hearing, infuriating the third, intolerable after that. In a live performance, we wince for a second, then it’s over and done with. It’s only worth bothering about if it is emblematic of generally sloppy playing, conducting, or poor ensemble. And even then, the quality of the interpretation, or the music's rarity, can make it forgiveable.

So I think, to come to the second, constant comparisons between Prom performances and recordings are mistaken, even pointless. As is the underlying assumption that every time a conductor and an orchestra performed a certain work, it always must have sounded exactly like a particular recording of it. It’s plain wrong to talk of Toscanini’s X or Furtwangler’s Y in the broad terms many do, when they simply mean W or Z recording. And it’s a way of looking at performance that does the Proms, particularly, a disservice.

Of course, it can be useful, sometimes, to elucidate the ‘sound’ or style of a concert by referring to differences between it and a recording most readers might be presumed to have heard. But that is a very different thing to saying, as I seem to have read often, that so-and-so’s interpretation was rubbish because such-and-such-another’s was the epitome of perfection.

And of course, the ‘perfection’ of a recording, as I’ve hinted, may not actually be all it seems. I’ve known recordings (I’ve been at the sessions) where it would surprise people to hear that the ‘perfection’ was attained through an editing process that amalgamated more than forty takes of just a few bars each (not necessarily even played in the right order!) in a piece that lasted no more than fifteen minutes. The one I’m thinking of was, I was very amused to read when the recording was released, praised for its ‘natural fluidity’, even for having ‘obviously been done in a single take’.

That, of course, is how it should appear. In fact, the chances of any listener finding out any different from hearing a recording made pretty well any time during most of the last two decades are as near zero as makes no difference, thanks to digital editing. I know of another recording where a few bars of percussion were ‘spliced in’ from being recorded long after the sessions in the recording engineer’s garage because of a mistake that couldn’t be corrected at the time.

Both the engineer and I waited with considerable curiosity for a particular critic who frequently complained of hearing ‘bad edits’ to spot it. He didn’t; which is not surprising, because even I, after I’d failed the test (I was up half the night determined I was going to tell the engineer I’d found it at the following afternoon’s session) and was then tipped off to exactly where it was, could never have sworn on the Bible I could actually hear it. . .

Even the BBC isn’t always entirely purist, although they do tend to resort to a little ‘trickery’ only in an emergency. Obviously, they edited out the notorious ‘mobile phone obbligato’ * which drowned the clarinet at the beginning of the Rattle/BPO Rite of Spring for the repeats, but I know of at least one occasion when a recording was actually patched together from two separate performances in different halls with wildly different accoustics and levels, because of a technical problem with the mics during the performance that was intended to be broadcast later. I know of that one, because courtesy of Avid, I was allowed to try my hand at comparing my digital needlework with the BBC’s. . .

So, I’m beginning to feel the force of Paul Daniel’s argument rather the more this year. And, of course, that is why you will seldom read here a list of recordings that are ‘better’ than or even only ‘different’ to the night’s performance. It should I think, be allowed to stand entirely on its own. Comparisons, like trainers, after a while are odorous . . .

* I haven't heard one so far this year (he says crossing his fingers). Perhaps the BBC's pre-concert announcement has finally got through. (I particularly liked the very emphatic, justifiably curt "Please switch OFF your mobile phones" that ran for a couple of seasons.) But I simply cannot understand all those people who cannot bear to stop texting or reading their SMS messages until the second the conductor raises his baton. Nothing in the world can be that urgent. Or of it is, why are they about to spend an hour and a half at a concert?

Prom 40: A Mass for the Masses

I see the BBC web people sorted out the links to the programme notes (so you’re reading my blog, eh? Don’t go away, I’ve got a question for you, and you’ll see in the last para I’m extremely angry about something else seemingly even more careless) but they still managed to confuse me. Am I supposed to call the piece that ended the first half of Prom 40 a ‘Concertino’ or a ‘Capriccio’?

Whatever, it was wonderfully capricious; ‘capering’, as in the root sense of the word. Even if the choice of instrumentation was capricious in the more common sense . . . Still, it worked marvellously, especially with that groaning, playfully head-butting euphonium. Forgive me for putting off the review this deserves, for apart from not being able to decipher my handwriting 48 hours on, my pen split after the first few bars and spread ink all over my notes and my fingers thereafter, which didn’t help. I’ll have to get back to you on this one, but it really was superb.

I don’t know anything about the Paul Wingfield ‘reconstruction’ of Janacek's Glagolitic Mass, and I have too much to catch upon to go into it thoroughly, so I’ll leave that aspect to others. Whatever it entails, Boulez and his forces made it utterly convincing and absorbing. A blogging colleague, if he’ll allow me to be so familiar (Doundou Tchil) wrote that it “has always been a poser to me, because it's huge and sprawling, and that sort of thing tends to bring out extreme syrup from most conductors.”

I don’t know whether he will agree, but this was Rice Krispies popping all over the place, with a nice solid foundation of whatever a substantial Slavonic peasant breakfast equivalent of bacon eggs and toast might be. No clogging golden (or Maple) syrup anywhere. And a good helping of goat’s milk instead of skimmed in more than a few places where the ‘folk’, or ‘popular’ roots showed through, pointed up very neatly and unselfconsciously by Boulez, and sung with real pleasure, understanding and grasp by the combined BBC Symphony and London Symphony Choruses. . . Who also managed to convey perfectly the heady smell of incense of a Greek Orthodox church in the more purely liturgical parts.

Boulez even showed us in the Intrada, Introduction and elsewhere, without any pedantry or pedagogy, where the Mass has some foundation both in Slavonic popular music, and even in the Sinfonietta, which any competent musician could probably reconstruct almost entirely from the first three minutes.

There were sections that were dance-like: the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus) where you could visualise the chorus in full peasant costume; trance-like (the Agnus dei) with its romantic lyricism, numinous stings and almost ethereal woodwind; and rousingly, exuberantly rowdy, like a crowd at the fair, in the stunning ‘Slava’ (Gloria).

And what tension in the complexity of the Kyrie. Boulez built it up with a perfect grip on chorus and orchestra, relaxing (as he did elsewhere), then tautening it in almost Hitchcockian fashion, until in the Crucifixus, the culminating ‘scream’ from the chorus was almost unbearable.

The penultimate movement is a soaring, vivid, vibrant organ solo (played by Simon Preston, who else?) which was an entire cathedral in itself, as glorious, as huge, as Santa Sophia. Yet played with superb delicacy of touch and sympathy. The last movement, the ‘repeat’ of the Intrada, now celebratory, joyous and like a rowdy country fete, Boulez took at breakneck pace, without a single stumble. It was breathtaking.

There is, of course, always a little snag in this sort of performance at the Proms, and, because the BBC either cannot or will not pay the sort of fees most toprank singers demand (though I did, gloriously, hear Monserrat Caballe in a Prom once) we are often a little let down by the quality of the soloists, however much they make up for it, as they did in this Prom, by sheer enthusiasm.

I thought the soprano in the ‘Slava’ (Gloria) wobbly, and not (at least as I heard it from the radio broadcast) really powerful enough, and sometimes strained; the mezzo and tenor I also thought were less forceful than I might have hoped, though clearly Simon O’Neill (tenor) was putting his soul into it, as was the bass (Peter Fried) much as Boulez’ Mass really sounded as though it needed a thoroughly ‘Russian’ sounding one.

Even so, this was a truly glorious performance. Another from this season that if you missed on the night, or if you miss the repeat, you will regret. As this supposedly was Boulez’ final appearance as a conductor (according to the presenter, though concerts are advertised in London and Paris through to December) you might not get another chance.

(It looks as though that comment might have been the product of very casual or careless background ‘research’ for his script that nobody thought of checking. Apparently, Boulez has said he doesn’t want to conduct opera any more, not simply not conduct . . .For god’s sake, BBC, get this kind of thing right, will you? It’s not the first time this has happened in the last three or four seasons. Since it really startled me, it serves me right for not checking it properly on the night, too. So now, I can’t trust a single word any of the presenters say, and I’m going to have to ‘fact check’ everything myself. Make my life harder, why don’t you? I would have been sacked by any of my editors on the spot for something like that.)

I apparently misunderstood—not paying enough attention—the announcer in fact referring to his last appearance conducting opera. (See comment.) However, that doesn't invalidate my general strictures on the quality of some of the background research and proof-reading for Proms material over the last few years: the confusion between the 'Concertino' and 'Capriccio' being a prime example: it's the 'Concertino' in the Proms Guide and 'Capriccio' in the Radio Times, I see.

I've already admitted I make mistakes too; and I dare say before the end of the season I'll make more. I believe I've assigned Doundou Tchil the wrong gender. Sorry.

R3 relay

BBCSO, BBC Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Chorus/Pierre Boulez: Janacek, Glagolitic Mass.

The photo is of a mural in a Birmingham house (now destroyed) representing a scene from Petrushka, painted by house guests in, I believe, the late twenties, to surprise Philip Sargent Florence (whose wife, Lalla, was prominent in the early family planning movement) on their return from a performance in Paris . . .The cottage over the stables, which he rented to Louis McNeice, and in which W H Auden stayed when he was in Birmingham, has also gone, and there isn't even a blue plaque in the housing estate that now covers the site. . .

Sunday, 17 August 2008

All that glisters . . .

Occasionally, I get irritated and I dig my heels in. Even if sometimes it feels like they’re just sinking into soft sand. I will not, nohow, review a PR stunt. Or another fashion parade. Sharon Bezaly (Pron 43, Nigel Osborne's Flute Concerto) came with “gold hair, in a gold sheath dress.” Carrying “a 24-carat gold flute.” What the hell has any of that to do with music?

Still, I liked the almost genteely understated (in orchestral forces) Mozart Symhony No 34 with the London Sinfonietta under Richard Hickox.

Prom 40: Tarantara, tarantara!

“I don’t care at all for tradition,” said Boulez in the interval interview on Radio 3. “I like to establish my own tradition! . . . A tradition is just an accumulation of mannerisms and. . . imitations. The real approach is just to take the score, a personal relationship with it, and try to give that to the audience.” (I’ve paraphrased a little, not being much cop at shorthand.) What he created in Prom 40 with Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Concertino, let alone the Glagolitic Mass, was definitely his own, quite new, ‘tradition”, and a superb, fascinating one, probably un-imitatable, it was too.

I didn’t know, but apparently this was Boulez’ final appearance as a conductor. He’s ‘retiring’ to concentrate on composition, the presenter said at the end of the concert.*  What a way to go! And what a damn shame that we won’t have this kind of experience again. He hadn’t changed a bit since those glory days—what, thirty-odd years ago?—when he was Chief Conductor of the same orchestra he came back to tonight. We were really privileged.

Some Proms are epiphanies, as we rediscover a piece, like the Sinfonietta in this, that we have almost come to think of as banal through too-frequent, too-average playing. (It has never helped that the ‘fanfare’ introduced a British early afternoon soap for years.) The BBCSO’s under Boulez’s baton was another one this year. Not to mention the authentic ‘shock of the new’ we had when it came to the astonishing Concertino. I’d rescue that from a burning building well before I bothered about pretty well any of the ‘new’ contemporary pieces I’ve heard this season.

From the first notes of the ‘fanfare’, it sounded as though this was going to be different; not a brash blazing thing, a separate little showpiece blasted out to get your attentiion, though in its almost understated way, it did exactly that, but a proper opening statement of a theme. This Sinfonietta was, for once, absolutely true to its title. Tautly performed, very carefully, insightfully, constructed in the orchestral balance, piccolo, flutes and violins soaring with seeming casual simplicity above the statements of the brass. Pure, even, in its occasional unashamed, foxy side-glances at Romaticism, too. Vivaciously played, and presumably, conducted . . . Pure joy to hear like that.

Boulez commented to the effect that Janecek was not a ‘folk’ composer, but one who lived ‘popular’ music, and this was what this performance, and the Mass, brought out with tremendous clarity. And the BBCSO seemed to know, just as he trained them to years ago (with some difficulty at times, I seem to remember) though few of its members then could still be part of it now, instinctively, exactly what he wanted.

Oh dear, BBC websters, you’ve done it again! None of the links to the notes for these performances were what they seemed: those titled ‘Glagolitic Mass’ were for the Concertino, for the Sinfonietta, the Mass, and so on. Or something like that. I got confused. Like I did a couple of times last year, when they did the same sort of thing, only worse; Beethoven was transmuted into Glazunov, or something even more bizarre. Doesn’t anybody there a) know about classical music, b) read and/or c) check with someone competent at either if they don’t? I think I know the answers, and they ain’t encouraging. So just print all three, and sort it out later. Saves kicking your computer into inoperability out of frustration.

Between you and me, I had hoped I might be able to crib a little from them, never having heard the
Concertino before. But, as you will see if you download them, that was a rather forlorn hope, so I had to rely entirely on my own. . .And 24 hours later I can barely read the damn scribbles.

And what with the
Glagolitic Mass, then Belshazzar on Saturday and Flos Campi on Sunday, I haven’t time to listen to it all over again and It’s too late to learn proper shorthand now; I really must do something about my handwriting. To think I used to be able to do proper Italian Renaissance italic, even fairly quickly . . .

Glagolitic Mass review, and maybe the Concertino, may have to wait a little while in consequence. (I can’t keep staying up this late; well, not writing, anyway.) That was also a superb, glorious, exciting Carl Orffian-Carmina Buranian (I mean that in the best, lively, engaging, communicating sense!) performance. Oh, those choruses! Tenor and bass pretty good, bit thinnish, bass a bit better; mezzo and soprano a bit wobbly.

Fantastic energy. But, oh, again, that wonderful orgasmic organ! Wrong word for an instrument in a mass, maybe, but this one was downright pagan in its festiveness anyway. It shivered my icons’ timbers, I can tell you; I could see the halos shuddering. Boulez, I swear, 83 (two years older than the BBC Proms themselves!) going on 23 tonight. I’d wondered about the ‘reconstruction’ of the score (I’ll have to delve a bit more into that sometime) but this performance totally justified the choice.

* I may have been the victim of some careless background 'research' for the presenter's script here. He is supposed to be conducting two concerts in London and one in Paris between now and the end of  the year. Apparently, he has said he doesn't want to conduct opera, not not conduct . . . I apologise for not checking this myself. And I'm damned annoyed  with the BBC, because I don't see why I should have needed to. I won't take them on trust any more.

R3 relay

Prom 40: BBCSO/Pierre Boulez: Janacek, Sinfonietta; Concertino; Glagolitic Mass.

Plus ça change . . .

I don't think I can cope with this opera and oratorio stuff from the 17th and 18th centuries. It's too modern for me.

First we have a self-obsesssed ruler who doesn't care about his country; will even get rid of his closest advisers without compunction when what they tell him doesn't suit. Even have them killed. Or drive them to suicide.

Then we have a self-obsessed ruler who lets his country go to wrack and ruin, an angry oppressed population, a warning he's really letting himself in for it, an invasion, the death of the ruler and reconstruction under the new forces.

What's that phrase the Neocons kept bandying about? And I seem to have heard again in a pot-calling-the-kettle sort of way very recently? "Regime Change"?

Prom 41 (Handel's Belshazzar—OAE, Charles McKerras) was superb. I'll be coming back to it.

Did somebody say 'old' music just isn't relevant to the 21st century . . .

(You'll have noticed I'm trying to get the accents sorted, at last , I know it's long overdue. . .Speaking of instant gratification, I've noticed a lot of would-be readers of this blog scour Google for reviews within 24 hours of the concert ending. I can't always manage that, you know. Even the nationals don't. And I've been catching up on some much-needed sleep this weekend. Pateience. Patience. . .)

Friday, 15 August 2008

In one ear and . . .

Isn't it odd how two people can hear, apparently, exactly the same things, and be diametrically opposed in their conception of what they mean? This is The Times on the Schoenberg Variations:

". . .[it] is a test of any ensemble's technique and concentration. The orchestra not only swept through it with compelling passion, but managed to characterise the fleeting mood changes—some no more than a flicker—without compromising the overall flow."

I can't say I heard "compelling passion"—rather 'determination'—but I heard all the rest—and they were the things I thought were so wrong with it. All sweeping flow and a few fleeting flickers . . .

Oh, well. Perhaps I'm in a bad mood . . .or is it politically dodgy to be a bit mean to Barenboim and his band in print? I wonder. . .

(And thinking of people having only half an ear, I've read in the Guardian that the 'L'histoire d'un Soldat' was "chiefly unsuccessful because it was narrated in French." (As of course, so many have been this season, seeing as how they were sung in French, German, Italian, even Latin.) This in the Guardian, not the bloody xenophobic Daily Mail? Jesus, the sort of language I'd like to use about that I don't think I dare to, even in a blog. Quel con! Quelle rhodomontade! Zenophobe! Cochonnerie! Je vous emmerde!)

As of now, you'd better pronounce my first name French-style, that's with an acute accent on the E. [i-rique. Got it? I'm going to insist on it.] Don't bother trying with the last one, the French can't do that at all . . .In one part of the north of England, though not the one I come from, it's actually pronounced 'Brouwat" which they could, only it's too complicated to explain . . .

Prom 39: Tinker, tailor, soldier . . .

Nous vous proposons à cette soirée, un petit opéra, un petit drame, pour sept instruments et une voix, qui est très passionnante et un beau plaisir minuscule….It’s OK, don’t panic, the rest is in English. Sort of.

Though there was a momentary panic early on in the Stravinsky L'histoire d'un soldat. Even I can hear cracked notes from the brass and tell when a note on a string instrument should be flat, not off altogether. But they recovered.

I think they recovered, for I found the music rather flat too, only occasionally dramatic, certainly never melodramatic, and monochromatic. I can’t see why this should be. There were so many missed opportunities, so many points at which the narrator was so much more dramatic than the musicians, and without him one would have felt just as forlorn as that soldier finding the violin had no sound.

That’s not to say the musicians were not highly skilled; they were. There were some lovely sweet bars from the violin when they were needed, some splendid passages from the two brass players, but, all the same it was cold. And surely the parodic Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott was, for all its harmonium impersonation—and why wasn't that sustained?—neither out-and-out-parody, nor ironic, not even post-modernist. Somebody didn’t really get the joke.

And, at the end, what was the percussionist doing, playing like a street musician collecting pennies? So, I’m sorry to tell you, I was a bit disappointed again. The playing was, que dirai-je? Sequential. It lacked sufficient narrative cohesion. And any sense of a fairy tale, let alone a post-war fairy-tale and one that belongs as much to the Thirty Years War as the First. Yet at least some of the members of this band must have been brought up on Khalil-wa-dumnah? (I don't think I've got the transliteration right, there, but it's too late at night to ring a friend and ask.) And in the devilish dispossession of war that is the point?

But what saved it was Patrice Chéreau’s wonderfully dramatic narration, which had all the colours and expression and narrative flexibility the playing mostly lacked. Perhaps that was the intention? But if it was, why? It was an utterly entrancing bit of story-telling: I really felt like a child again, wanting to see how it all turned out, seeing the characters so vividly in my head, and yet hoping it wouldn’t end too soon. Even though I know the story . . .

And I’m sure at one point I heard him make that very French rude gesture: when you slap the elbow of your right forearm up with its clenched fist with the palm of your left hand . . .Something certainly sounded like that . . .

I’m so glad I could follow the French. Not that it’s so difficult, actually, and made even easier thanks to the narrator’s superb diction. (Did the audience not, or not have a translation? I thought they’d giggle a little in places, and when they didn’t, I felt a bit foolish.) Unforgiveable, BBC: why didn’t Patrice Chéreau get a credit in print, or on the web, nowhere that I could see? He was indispensable.

Note to presenters: if you must try to pronounce names in French, it sounds very silly when it’s done so “exsplausifelie”. Forget “Allo, Allo”, OK? That’s not actually French they’re speaking . . . . And practice saying “Intercontemporain” please. No, no, try again. You can manage ‘ensemble’ on your own, can’t you, though I know it’s a bit tricky putting them together? I’ve already screamed at my speakers over Alice Coote’s “ondgenoo” for ‘ingenue’. This guy Pierre Chéreau might give lessons . . . The story lasted less than an hour, nowhere near long enough for ‘Patrice’ to turn into ‘Pierre’. Yes, I know I make mistakes too, and I had a very long day as well after not much sleep, perhaps that’s why I’m in a bit of a temper, but this does smack of carelessness.

Apparently the orchestra flew into London from Naples late last night, were rehearsed from 10am until 2, and were on at 7. Tomorrow they’re flying off again. The presenter said Barenboim ‘pushes them hard’ almost approvingly. Too hard, I think, and I also think it was showing tonight. Why? A ‘maestro-onic’ ego trip?

R3 relay

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim; Stravinsky: L’histoire d’un Soldat, narr. Patrice Chéreau.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Prom 38: Falling off the divan

I said I wasn’t going to review the Schoenberg from the ‘Divan’ and Barenboim tonight; so I won’t, though I did listen to it. I’ll just comment on it.

It is clear, as the presenter told us, that the orchestra does know the music very well.
Also clear, as Barenboim apparently said, that it is “A difficult piece to make work.” Whether he himself had any real, developed, considered, conception of what to do with it, I am not so sure. Conceptually, it seemed incoherent to me, just the style of performance overall that I would give to a friend so she could confirm to herself why she hates the Schoenberg of this period.

Apparently, some of the Arab members of the band were heard ‘jamming’ one of the themes in Arabic style earlier. I would have liked to have heard that; I suspect they may have shown a better sense of the structure of the Variations for Orchestra than their conductor, if they could do that. And I have heard just enough Arabic music to guess what it might have sounded like. Now that would have been very interesting if they had been allowed some of that freedom in the 'real thing' tonight. I’m sure they could recognise the musical meaning of the plural . . .

OK, I did say I was tired. Perhaps I’m jaded. Maybe I’ll have another go at it next week, but this really is a favourite of mine, and despite the skill of the orchestra, I was disappointed. Apparently he told them, being “tough on them”, that the piece sounded sometimes like “rush hour in Hong Kong” in rehearsal. I wonder if he put them off. It sounded more like SUV’s rolling along a 12-lane American freeway at 3 in the afternoon to me.

Prom 38: East-Western Divan Orchestra: Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra.

Prom 37: Peacocks, Pride, Perdition and Fall

Tonight’s conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, said of Ravel’s La Valse that it is “the apotheosis of the Viennese waltz . . .leading to death”. In his hands, and those of the Gothenberg Symphony, that was the very least of it.

It began so darkly, so threateningly, that it could have been the soundtrack to a horror movie. In this ballroom, somewhere behind a garlanded and gilded column, lurked Baron Samedi; the dancers would have seen only the evening dress, but been just aware, in the corner of their eyes, of the white grinning skull under the top hat . . . This was the last dance of the Hapsburg dynasty, blithely pretending to be unaware that their Vienna was no longer holy. nor Roman. nor an Empire, and the chandeliers (I didn’t pinch this from Gerald Larner’s notes; I read them later, honest) would soon crash to the floor and the mirrors be shelled into shards.

This waltz was the Viennese, stately, but doomed, dancing away from the Sachertorte, out of Vienna, ending dazedly alongside the Archduke’s carriage in Sarajevo, just before the bomb exploded half the world. There have been some truly enlightening interpretations of Ravel this season like the Bolero; this was most certainly another. “You should see whatever comes through the music,” Ravel said. And what an extraordinary, cleverly-coloured moving (in both senses) picture Dudamel and his Gothenberg band gave us to watch.

A lot of colours, tempi changes, opium . . .so Dudamel on the Symphonie Fantastique. “If it’s sometimes crazy, sometimes ugly, it will be perfect.”

And, with a lot of colours, changes in tempi, sometimes crazy, sometimes ugly, so it was. And the opium? I’ll come to that. The first movement was not ugly at all; an opium haze from the growling basses, the kind of sharply defined colours you only see through pinpoint pupils when you’ve taken drugs striking through it, and a growing tension that prefigured all the themes in the subsequent movements.

This was not a day-trip through storyville with a bland guide speaking a commentary on the coach, this performance. Rather a psychological journey that forced you into travelling along the synapses of Berlioz’s psyche half in the dark. And, to appreciate it fully, needing at least an inkling of Jungian archetypes and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and the psychological horror stories both can become.
In challenging contrast, the ball was almost purely lyrical. Adolescents dancing together; unaware of the implications of their fall, the boy not anticipating rejection. I’ve been to that ball (as disco, of course); hoped with that same assurance. Been shamed and shocked by rejection later. Haven’t we all? It was all there; conducted with such calmness, but such tightening tension in recognising our knowledge of what was to come in the story, that at the end, someone in the audience actually screamed at being released. I can understand that.

There was nothing of the pretty-pretty pastoral in the third movement. This was sexually highly charged; shepherds as lovers, the rolling timpani presaging pre-coital anxiety withdrawal and (unfulfilled) post-coital tristesse, the storm psychological, not meteorological. I did feel, however, that the Gothenberg was being stretched here just beyond its skills in trying to attain the full range of colour and textures I think Dudamel was after. Nor, at times, I thought, could they entirely cope with the tempi being demanded of them. But the last bars were of immense pathos that long outlasted their mere seconds of real time. The audience seemed to have been made palpably uncomfortable by it. Again, I’m not surprised.

So then, in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ there was ugliness, and sharp changes in tempi, and bitter grinding horns, emphasised by sudden alterations form f to mf. This was no proud, head-held-high walk to the executioner. In Britain, we imagine the scaffold as a hangman’s platform which all but perhaps a bare handful of people now alive know only from drawings and photographs; the victim, resigned, the march a funereal one. This was a bloodstained gory guillotine. This was hands clawing in fear at the ladder, nails stripped to the root on the rungs in desperation to escape, eyes rolling in terror at that high gleaming steel blade poised to fall and send gouts of blood pulsing in waves from the severed neck. This was ‘crazy’, the nightmare you wake from but cannot escape, and that leaves you as horror-struck awake as you were asleep and feels as though it will never fade.

So to the ‘Sabbath’. A wild gallop of spectres in a mad rush to perdition, a Totentanz beyond Ravel’s worst nightmares, even with his experience of the War, with near-crazy rhythms that almost got out of control, but that Dudamel just—just—kept under control. Although they worked desperately hard, I’m not sure the Gothenberg entirely caught the shivery, hyper (hysterical, in the Freudian sense) conclusion to the movement that I think Dudamel was attempting, but one could not help but be caught up in it and, perhaps, filling it out from one’s own imagination.

Yes, this Fantastique was flawed in parts, technically, but it was a great conception, and they can be easily ignored when, like tonight, you find in a symphony you thought you knew, there is still more to be discovered, more to be experienced, and so differently. The audience applause was riotous and just went on and on. Quite right too.

I have been looking for a successor to Argenta, off and on, for years. Gustavo Dudamel, I am pretty sure after tonight, is it and Los Angeles is to be envied next year, as long as they give him his head. I just hope to god he avoids small planes. We can’t afford to have the same thing happen twice.

I shall return to Anders Hillborg’s fascinating and superbly played Clarinet Concerto [‘Peacock Tales’] shortly. It fits neatly, and this can come as no surprise now we can see where it’s all been leading, into this season’s edgy slightly off-the-wall jazz-cum-modernist-cum Romantic subtext.

Don’t dismiss it; as attention-grabbing—and attention-holding—and as much a ‘quasi-ballet’ as La Valse, as scary in its way as the ‘Walk to the Scaffold’ . . . Clever , unsuspected programming link there. And R3 followed up with a very interesting interview-cum-concert with him afterwards, a “Prom Composer’s Portrait” which I recommend to you via ‘Listen Again’ if you found the peacock a bit tough to chew on. In fact, it might be a good idea to listen to that first, if contemporary composers unnerve you.

If you want to hear ‘Tzigane clarinet’, however, do listen to Martin Frost’s cheery little encore piece, ‘Be Happy’ “arranged by [his] little brother” that trailed the peacock’s tail. The audience and I were, tonight, with this Prom. Very. So Dudamo gave us two encores; a Stenhammer piece to soothe the breasts that he’d ruffled with psycho-savagery in the Berlioz, and unsettled with La Valse, and then the brass section chucked their (not so strait) jackets away . . . And we had a fizzy little Latin rhumba to clap and stamp to.

I love these little sherbet sweeties conductors give us at the Proms sometimes as a thank you for working our brains hard—and actually paying out our hard-earned fivers for it, too—for the previous couple of hours. And it’s great fun.

What is all that crap about British stiff upper lips, eh? We can be very serious when we have to be, but we do know how to enjoy ourselves as well, you know; just as much as anybody from South America. Weird, and almost incongruous, as I daresay it might sound at the end of a night like this to some listeners abroad. It’s part of what makes the Proms, and possibly us Prommers, unique. And what attracts orchestras and conductors from around the world to come thousands of miles sometimes for just a night or two: it can’t possibly be the fees the BBC pays . . .

R3 Relay

Prom 37: Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra/Dudamel: Ravel: La Valse; Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Hillborg: Clarinet Concerto

I forgot to mention THE BELLS . . . (The capital letters are mandatory, to give you an idea what they sounded like.) Where did they nick them from? Westminster Abbey? Whitechapel Bell Foundry? I've never heard them ring like that . . .  And I found out what the two encores were, didn't write them down, and now I've forgotten them as well and I'm going to have to look them up again . . .

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

East, West . . .

. . . home’s best. That is, if you have somewhere you can be sure of calling ‘home’ with any sense of permanency, and some members, even the youngest, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, of course, will probably be uncertain of that for their entire lifetimes. Yes, politics rears its head again. So?

For all I now have a new respect, politically, for Daniel Barenboim after his Reith Lectures, I have seldom been happy with his conducting at the Proms in recent years. In fact, I walked out of one—and I can easily count the number of times I’ve done that on one hand—in utter dismay and real anger at what I thought was stolid, uncomprehending, and unimaginative conducting and a thoroughly banal interpretation. All the same I was quite taken at the time by last year's 'Wagnerian' Bruckner.

So, therefore, I would normally skip Proms 38 and 39 this week; the trouble is, I do like both the Schoenberg and the Stravinsky. . .and, obviously, I have some sympathy with the aims behind the foundation of the band.

However, be prepared for the reviews to appear rather late. To be honest with you, I’ve now listened to (sometimes twice) and concentrated hard on (you’ll have to take my word for that!) nearly 30 Prom concerts so far (even if I haven’t written about all of them) and I am beginning to suffer a touch of the Proms mid-season equivalent of the marathon runner’s ‘wall’.

I shall probably record the R3 repeats to listen to later, just to give me time to both catch up and get my second wind for what I hope are going to be some major, or at least extremely interesting, concerts coming up in the second half of the season. (Handel’s Belshazzar—Prom 41—looks pretty likely to me, and of course there’s Rattle’s Turangalila and Shostakovich 10 in Proms 64 and 65 not to mention several in between . . .)

(Photographer unknown.)

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Prom 36: Night Thoughts

Between Tuesday night’s Proms, I just had time to cook and eat my pasta and tomato and mascarpone sauce, come un buon ragazzo. (Last clue!) Perhaps because I wasn’t brought up a western Catholic, let alone in the Byzantine branch, I have always had a slightly guilty love for Orthodox chant. It’s been reinforced over the years by a friend who was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church (but who, like me, is an atheist) who enthuses about the wonderful sonorities she regularly heard as a child.

It seemed to me, at first, that, besides it being clearly secular (there are Cossackian and traditional Russian rhythms in it, after all) that this performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Paul Hillier, was cool in an almost post-modernist way. It was certainly texturally delicate, almost fragile in places, even those wonderful passages from the basses kept very clean, not over-enriched as we might have expected, while the women’s voices were purely ethereal.

Perhaps I will be accused of being fanciful, but it does belong to 1915, and was sung, tonight, almost as a “mass in time of war”. Or, more accurately, “in fear” of war. (That really is lurking, somehow, under the surface of many pieces this year, and predated recent events.) Almost desolate at times; an offer of resignation to God that man has failed yet again, not a demand for attention and aid. And perhaps, who would know the desolation of this in their psyches than the Russians of Rachmaninov’s time, and the inhabitants of those small Baltic States over the last sixty years?

But emotion (purely and entirely musical, I think, not religious, and therefore untrammelled by the dogmas of belief) was palpable from the Estonian choir; not surprising perhaps, if what I have written in the last paragraph has any truth to it at all. It had a terrible beauty to it. I shall keep my recording.

This time, the notes (by Andrew Huth) are informative—hence my only trying to give you a broad impression—and indispensable.

R3 Relay

Prom 36: Rachmaninov: All-night Vigil (Vespers); Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier.

Prom 35: Sunlight and Storms

Sorry, I can’t really get on with “In the South”, beautifully and sensitively played though it was by the BBC Phil and Sinaisky (especially the ‘canto populare’.) That, by the way, has never sounded ‘populare’ to me; and nor can I ever find myself really imagining the Italian Med, filthy weather or not, and I’ve seen it grey and nasty and shivered in the gales coming off it. Though not at Alassio, I admit.

It always seems to me more Elgarian ‘home thoughts from abroad’ — and not that Straussian, as the presenter tried to persuade us, except tangentially in the very colourful way it was played, surprisingly appropriately, tonight—rather than Italian. I reckon I should know. (Clue.) Maybe the photos mentioned in the notes would have helped, but I’ve never seen them.

Coincidentally, the weather in London tonight was just as foul as that Elgar experienced. But that felt very English rather than Mediterannean, too.

Isn’t the Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto peculiar? As a piano concerto, that is. I’m not familiar with it at all, but could almost be persuaded into listening to it more often by both the piano playing tonight (just a bit Lisztian, even a spot of diabolism in the first two movements?) by Ashley Wass and John Pickard’s notes.

There were, even, just a very few really Straussian bars in the Romanza. Ever since that Elgar 1, I have become all the more aware through interpretations during this Prom series that the English composers of this generation were by no means as insular as you might think. This performance emphasised that too.

I was very relieved that the presenter didn’t know what Wass’s, beautiful, sensitive, soothing, gentle solo encore was either. He hazarded Frank Bridge, and perhaps so might I, except it seemed more, well, elegant and spare. It was. . .Messaien? I would never have guessed. I have to look out for that.

The Sheherezade? Well, we all know it, don’t we? I was a little concerned as the first movement began with a slower tempo, more deliberate than I expected, but it was a perfect foil to the (gorgeous sounding, really stylish and full of variety of tone, throughout, as were the other principals) violin. In fact, Sinaisky’s tempi were, as it turned out (and it really hotted up until the last movement was practically superheated steam) perfectly judged, well into the gypsyish sections.

The Phil sounded suitably luscious (not lush) where it was needed. And a really forceful, vividly balanced sound from the orchestra in the last movement with a throughly wild violin and orchestra playing a storm that you wouldn’t believe even if you’d been in a hurricane in the Atlantic, finishing with golden rays of sunlit violin and harp chords and stunning timpani. I won’t stop being a fan of the Beecham recording, but this was a truly lovely, joyful, gloriously exciting and thrilling performance of great clarity, that could supersede it.

The audience went crazy. (I cheated and wrote this before they did. I’d have been bloody furious with them if they hadn’t. Being at home, I started clapping before the final chords died away, I’m allowed, there.) If you decided to skip it (and I nearly did, because I’ll be up late listening to the Vespers and wrting, again) you were wrong.

R3 Relay

BBCPO/Vassily Sinaisky; Ashley Wass (pno); Elgar, ‘In the South’; Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto in C Major; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade.

Glad to hear the Arena’s “Heave!” and the Gallery’s “Ho!” before the Vaughan Williams back up to strength tonight. I thought it was bit feeble last year.

If you listen to the repeat, that’s not microphone hiss your hear in the quiet solo piano passages, it’s rain pounding on the big corrugated dome of the Albert Hall shortly before it hit my windows, equally loudly. And what a fascinating, equally unexpected, R3 interval piece on the archived history (half a million images!) of the ‘Scheherezade’ photographic studio in Sidon, in Lebanon.

Oh, please, BBC, start handing out the free cough sweets again. Look, I smoke (too much, I have done for far too long and you could probably repair roads with what’s in my lungs) but I manage not to cough even listening at home. I once went through agonies at the Barbican muffling my mouth and nose in my hanky until I could hardly breathe, when I had to go despite suffering a terrible bout of ’flu, so if I can, so can some of the Proms audience in the posh seats. It’s nearly always them. It was really bad tonight, and Sinaisky even had to give them time to hawk after the second and third movements. We haven’t had smog in London for half a century, so there’s no excuse. It’s disrespectful. Unforgivable.