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 . . .
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 . . .