Monday, 21 July 2008

Prom 1: Festivity and a Feisty Organ

Just a few passing comments, on this one, since I wasn’t particularly keen on the performers. Or the conductor, to be honest. He might be a welcome relief after Slatkin (for whom I invented my own nickname involving the substitution of a vowel but which I daren’t write here for fear of being sued; a truly dreadful spell, that) but for me, he lacks sympathy with a lot of the BBC SO’s repertoire. But I like Richard Stauss.

The Festliches Praeludium was grand. Large. But, for once, not bulky or sounding overstuffed like an old feather mattress. And the organ was even grander. Since it was refurbished, it sounds even prouder and more imperious than the Albert Memorial on the other side of the road to the Albert Hall looks since its refurbishment, and that’s saying something. Jiri Belohlavek was apparently worried it might sound too big: he was right, but its glorious bigness didn’t exactly do the piece any harm, just made it grandiosely celebratory, as it ought to be.

Belohlavek, perhaps, was too in thrall to the idea of the sheer size of the Strauss orchestra; when it came to the smaller scale of the Mozart Oboe Concerto. The first movement was decidedly perfunctory, too fast and casual with no subtlety at all, yet under other conductors the BBC SO is perfectly capable of sounding like a highly skilled and delicate chamber ensemble. Just not this first night. Somebody was out of sympathy, and to be honest, Nicholas Daniel’s cadenza was pretty but really rather trivial, and, to my mind though beautifully played, not very appropriate, for all Petroc Trelawny’s boosting of its natural origins and birdsong in his introduction. I’ve always thought of Mozart as a Townie, anyway, rather than a country boy. The last movement., as you might have expected, was rushed to a close.

And the Four Last Songs? Thanks to the original soloist being unable to appear, the performance had all the signs of having been perfunctorily re-rehearsed some time in the morning (one of the curses of the BBC SO’s schedule when it appears at the Proms, and one that too often leads to somewhat clumsy performances except under a small handful of supremely talented conductors—Gerghiev for one. This was a long programme, too, which always makes me suspicious: I suspect a hurried briefing, a few bars played over and pencilled notes on the players’ scores.) The orchestral conducting was simply out of sympathy with Christine Brewer’s voice. And, really, not subtle enough or shaded well enough. It plucked more at my Achilles tendons than my heartstrings. We’ll draw a veil (or maybe even seven) over that.

What I really wanted to hear was the Messaien, and that superb organ again. This birth, the way it sounded, virgin or not was not an easy birth. It is full of screaming, sweating and agonising heaves, or, if you don’t like my similes here, an incredible rending of temple curtains but with a glorious blazing blinding extended daybreak of glaring Meditteranean sunshine instead of a storm, ending with, not exhaustion, but sheer unbelievable drawn-out ecstasy of a new infant birth. I’ve never really heard the organ at Notre Dame, but this is what the Albert Hall organ was created for. Glorious.

Me, I’m not terribly sympathetic to Elliott Carter. Catenaire was not for me. Or anyone who isn’t amused by an out of control pianola with the handle wound round fast by a maniac. Strangely, a very strong smell of embrocation suffused my flat through its open windows as soon as it ended. The mad handle-winder must have sprained his wrist, and a whiff of the soothing ointment wafted over all the way from the Albert Hall . . .

I’ve noticed over the last few years that the Prom audience, or at least a sizeable part of it, seems to have reverted to an older practice of applauding a cadenza, an individual movement or each song of a cycle . .I wish they wouldn’t. It’s something that should only be done when you are really transported, and that ought to mean rarely. It’s terribly distracting when you are trying to keep the whole piece in mind during the performance whether you’re at home or actually in the Albert Hall. And I just don’t know how it came to be.

(R3 Repeat) Strauss, Festliches Praludium; Mozart Oboe Concerto; Messaien, La Nativite du Seigneur-Dieu parmi nous; Elliot Carter, Catenaires for Solo Piano

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