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.

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