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.

Prom 20: [Stock]HAUS[en]MUZIK

When the Proms programmers think they can trust us with two of the longest programmes in one evening (getting on for four hours, altogether) of nothing but Stockhausen, no less, for the life of me I don’t understand why in other programmes of each season they have to pad out unfamiliar, but often easier, repertoire with traditional ‘sweeties’. Or has Stockhausen somehow become traditional and mainstream while I wasn’t looking?

I doubt that somehow, so I’ll credit the BBC with brave—and by all accounts, it turned out—very successful programming. The music making (and yes, that is what I do call it, for those of you out there who shudder at the thought of hearing even ten minutes of this genre, never mind four hours, and I’ll try to explain why) was breathtaking from all the players and conductors involved.

The only difficulty with ‘Gruppen’ was, hearing it at home, the overall physical ‘layout’ of the music was simplified, and probably needed less concentration, than might have been the case had I been in the Arena; I missed one of the essential aspects of the composition by not being in amongst the orchestras. I suggest you read the two expert bloggers on this music: Classical Iconoclast and Boulezian on that. Conversely, it probably made the intellectual layout easier to follow.
But the conductors, David Robertson, Pascal Rophe and Martyn Brabinns, along with he BBCSO, invited the intense concentration needed from a listener with astonishing facility, so that the 24 minutes of Gruppen, played with their crystal clarity, and total grasp, seemed to be over annoyingly quickly. I understand, now, why it has apparently become ‘traditional’ to repeat it.

Gruppen is full of groupings (as its name suggests) of tone colours, meticulously arranged instrumental connections, motives and themes, constantly interacting in kaleidoscopic fashion like a musical three-dimensional chess game played four-handed by two Grand Masters. Even if you are a novice at this game, because these leitmotivs and structures are, though mathematically organised, as easy to follow (even easier, maybe) than in a Wagner opera, that is why I say it is music.

I was upset, after such a superb performance, that the audience applause was at first very coy and tentative, but it did warm up, so perhaps they were taken by surprise by the ending, or found it difficult to relax their concentration for some seconds. You do need a little while to savour it after the end, I think. To allow your memory of the textures (speaking of which, the BBCSO percussionists were particularly, primus inter pares, brilliant) to settle.

Years and years ago there was a middle-of-the-road-music trumpeter who was always described as the ‘man with the golden trumpet’. In ‘Harmonien for solo trumpet’ (‘Klang: 5th hour’)’ Marco Blaauw’s was made of quicksilver, lightning, clouds, raindrops and rainbows by turns. I don’t know whether I should have done, but I heard late, haunting, Miles Davies, too. A spectacular showpiece, eloquent, elegiac in places, absolutely entrancing and absorbing for every one of its 15 minutes, and virtuoso playing from a trumpeter who apparently breathed through his skin. Perfect pure golden sound from the R3 engineers, too.

I decided not to review ‘Cosmic Pulses’, because I’m still unsure what relationship what we heard at home bore to the actual concert: whether it was a ‘stereo version’ of it, or a totally separate recording and therefore should be reviewed as one.

Anyway, congratulations to the R3 engineers and sound producers of this Prom: they mostly get ignored, tucked away out of sight in their cramped OB van round the side of the Albert Hall, hunched over their decks, paper cups of lukewarm canteen coffee in hand and ears pinned to their little LS3/5a’s (actually, not any more: they use Dynaudio Acoustics AIR monitors in the OB van now, and have done for the last three or four years or so, but they are just as tiny)  but their work this evening was extraordinarily skilful and talented. Unlike those who work for Philips, Decca, DGG or EMI, their names never get mentioned. So, a round of applause, from me, at least. If you were listening on the ’net, or at home, you should join in. Louder, please. Make an effort so they can hear you!

R3 Relay

Prom 20: Stockhausen: Gruppen, Klang (Harmonien for Trumpet Solo)

(I’m sorry these reviews are too late for me, hopefully, to have persuaded you to listen via the iPlayer, if you didn’t hear the concert the first time around. “Kontakte’ and ‘Stimmung’ will follow, sooner or later, though on a somewhat imprecise timetable, just like the next London bus after the one you just missed. . .)

Monday, 11 August 2008

Prom 34: A Tsar Performance

Another Prom first half that I hadn’t intended to listen to, but am very glad I did. I missed the Symphonic Dances, and reading Evan's review, now regret it bitterly, so I didn't want to potentially make the same mistake again.

If you need to be converted (as I did, which is why I nearly didn't listen to the first half)) to the view that Rachmninov’s First really does have some merit after all, then no-one could have been more convincing than Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic.

It was played just as you might have hoped from reading John Warrack’s pre-prom notes and better than Rachmaninov could ever have imagined. Had he heard this performance (far from sober, but in a totally different way to the first performance!) he might never have destroyed it.

In places, of course, it is too much, and too lush, but the BBCPO’s rich string sound (and beautifully dark-varnished celllos and basses) were never allowed completely to drown the themes, as they could all too easily have done. The presenter was perfectly justified, too in commenting on the ‘Russian’ sound of the brass and woodwind.

If Rachmaninov had really been vowing vengeance on someone on the last movement, the way that was emphasised with pepper-vodka astringency from strings and woodwind, I wouldn’t have cared to be the victim.

But of course, there is an awful lot of over-sugared tea in the Rachmaninov 1 samovar and its obvious youthful excesses, and sometimes over-scored excitability, but again, as exasperating as it can be, it was never allowed to coagulate into mush or go cold. It was transformed, in this performance, however unlikely it might seem, into youthful exuberance.

Noseda was described as being “passionate” about wanting to rehabilitate this symphony, and it showed. The audience greeted it with equal passion: rapturous applause and cheers which was very well deserved.

R3 Relay

Prom 34: Rachmaninov Symphony No1; Gianandrea Noseda, BBC Philharmonic.

(Presumably to make sure the broadcast sound supported Noseda’s obvious desire not to have an overblown sound from the orchestra. some sections were more closely-miked than usual, so, particularly in the first movement there was quite lot of clanking of music stands: though that does show the orchestra was as enthusiastic in its playing as Noseda was about the symphony. And, several dropped programmes—it is amazing what a racket the fluttering pages of just one make in the hall as they fall—and too much throat clearing from the audience. Somehow more intrusive than usual.)

Prom 31: America! Amerika! (From C to shining C.)

There isn’t much to ‘Strike up the Band’, really, but all the same, it was a lovely rousing welcome to the Prom that really made me hear the roar of the greasepaint. It brought back vivid memories of my first ever visit to a provincial circus big top when I was a little boy—it would look much smaller than many a PR bash marquee I’ve been in since, I suspect, if I saw it now. A clown in desperately sad makeup (it had frightened me a little) took me round the back of the caravans and generators to see what, until he cheered up a little in the ring later for his spell in front of an audience and produced some very hammy snarls, looked like an even more unhappy tiger.

Both are probably long dead, neither I imagine guessed, any more than I, it would lead me to a fascination with both theatrical and musical performances, let alone to the backstage of theatre for a while when I grew up, and I have felt sorry for them both, as well as grateful, all these years. But I was just as bouncily happy, and just as expectantly on the edge of my seat, when Charles Hazelwood and the BBC Concert Orchestra struck up their overture as I was when that tiny five-piece circus band struck up theirs then and I was hoping to see ‘my’ tiger happy too.

The BBC Concert Orchestra, is not a ‘light’ orchestra and certainly not a lightweight one. They excel at twentieth century music like this Prom’s, and, as we have heard at previous Proms recently in other 20th century repertoire you might think more the province of the BBCSO or even the London Sinfonietta. And so they did in Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto with Michael Collins on clarinet. “Full,” he said it was, of rhythmic complexity and incredible colours.” And under Hazelwood’s direction, pared down to almost Weill-ian spareness and rhythms, every strand counting, so, so clearly, it was.

This was not Benny Goodman’s Ebony. Nor Woody Herman’s, of which, apparently, Stravinsky said all he could remember was the cigarette smoke: “They didn’t blow horns, they blew smoke . . .” Perhaps because smoking is completely banned in public buildings (one day I am going to get pneumonia through being forced outside with my cigarette) this was not a performance in a smoke-filled club. It was cabaret—and Cabaret—and aware of the desolate dawn hours when the audience has gone, the floorboards are sticky with spilt liquor, and the bleak unenticing 40-watt bulbs have replaced the glamorous glare of the spotlights and coloured floodlight gels.

I daresay you may think I have an overactive imagination—but isn’t music supposed to stimulate the imagination, unless it emanates from Darmstadt or IRCAM?—and I’m harping on this sort of thing too much, but this was not 1945, assuredly not Hollywood, but in its darker tones the pre-war decadent Berlin clubland of Christopher Isherwood. With the SA inside titillating their warped libidos, and outside drunkenly ready to smash windows and start fights. Very like our own dear London clubland in 2008.

Quite often, a Proms season develops an ethos around some works, quite independent of the different orchestras, conductors and soloists, and so one has developed this year. I have begun to feel this, and tried to express it, in more than one of the concerts recently. It must be some kind of influence in the atmosphere; I am sure the conductors don’t get together with the Proms director and discuss their interpretations in advance, nor with each other, but nonetheless it does happen.

So the second ‘blues’ movement, lightly syncopated, just off-the-beat, was edgier than the New Orleans funeral march superficially it might have appeared. There was a nervous, fractious Mac-the-Knife sharpness to it that might have been the sound of jackboot s and marching, and red flags tearing too.

And so, in the last movement as the clarinet darkened ominously, after the almost elegiac and sombre beginning somehow the Ebony Concerto found itself, finally, in New York, not in Harlem, but somewhere under the night-time shadow of the Chrysler Building and the lights of the Empire State. (With a suggestion King Kong and Fay Wray might be on top, if you could only see through the rising steam from the sidewalk grids.) it was firmly rooted in the jazz inventors and all their migrations to and from Louisiana, Chicago, and New York in those fifty preceding years.This was a unique performance.

Though when Collins said “we should hear more of it” he meant the Concerto itself (and I have loved it for years—I discovered it via jazz, not classical music—and felt the same, and never understood why we don’t) he wasn’t expecting us to come back again to his, the BBCCO’s and Hazelwood’s, I shall.

I can’t really take Bernstein’s ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ on any level other than as a jeu d’esprit combined with a sort of ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Jazz Age”, and again, that confounded ‘Stripper’ sneaks in . . . I’d either forgotten, or others fade down the spotlights for those bars, but perhaps they should have thrown it a dressing gown or something and rushed it off stage.

But the BBCCO managed to combine, again, a touch of Weillian sparseness in the ‘prelude’ (brilliant, risky, use of mutes, and the hell with the size of the Albert Hall and whether the people up in the gods would have heard that at all!*) with vivid colours in a really glorious ‘fugue’, joyous ‘riffs’ and an incredibly spirited no-holds-barred big-band ending. Superb performance: it came closer than I ever imagined to conning me into taking it as real jazz in places.

Over Gershwin’s American in Paris, I shall not be shamed. Why shouldn’t I love it? Pace David Gutman’s notes it is a little shining diamond, still shiny after 80 years—80 years!—and diamonds can be flawed and still worth showing off, can’t they? The notes, by the way—it’s a bit of a cheat, really, but it is handy—quote Gershwin’s own ‘programme’ for it, so I’ll steer clear of that.

Despite a vivacious ‘Moulin Rouge’, beginning, there were some horrid blunders in it, and it took quite a few bars for the band to recover and get a grip again. (See my note at the end of this piece**.) Like true pros, they did, however, with the soloists doing a very ‘jazzbo’ job of it, the band even allowing themselves an utterly unashamed blatant (you could see Katie Courie’s lower lip wobbling) sentimentality in the ‘homesickness’ part. It might get it sneered at in some quarters, but it was honest. No clever-clever irony here: there’s none in the score, after all.

If I’m going to be honest too, and I suppose I’d better be, it was a rather ‘Barnum and Bailey’ piece of musical theatre. But I did end up wanting to dance around the flat waving a feather boa (I’m a cripple now, so I can’t really, any more) but at least I could tap my feet, shake my shoulders and click my fingers in delight, and in time, all through the closing section. And as the horn’s last notes died away, my lower lip did a little Katie Courie wobble, I admit, until the band successfully got me grinning again with their hectic ‘mad-taxis-round-the-Arc de Triomphe’ ending. A lovely close to this ‘jazz age’ Prom.

R3 Relay

Prom 31: Gershwin: Strike up the Band; An American in Paris; Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto; Bernstein: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.

* Actually, I’m just pandering to outdated prejudices, which some visiting conductors, soloists and orchestras still hold, despite, I presume, the Beeb’s engineers telling them it’s different now. They would have. Since the minor relocation of the flying saucers, the quietest ppp an orchestra is capable of can now be heard clearly up there, and pretty well everywhere else. Gerghiev,I think, was the first to make a trial of that in one concert. (He’s said to take an interest in the technical aspects, unlike many.) I wouldn’t have believed it (it would have been on the threshold of audibility anywhere) if I hadn’t been there.

**Sometimes, my theatrical past atavistically arising, I wish the BBC would borrow some West End stage hands. Some nights, like tonight, the stage-shifting (or rather instrument and music-stand rearranging) can be interminable, and it seriously damages the atmosphere. And, I think, can also unsettle the players, which might explain a few terribly clumsy bars in the American in Paris when the players lost it almost as badly as the audience had earlier which really made me wince.

Also tonight a producer’s worst nightmare came true. Somebody (who no doubt is still sobbing in chagrin in a dark secluded corner of the Albert Hall’s basement, and like Gerghiev when he disappears down there—apparently he’s got a passion for exploring the bowels of the place during the intervals—may not be retrieved for ages) left the soloist’s score backstage before the Ebony Concerto . . .

If you’re interested (but I dare say you aren’t) a good many years ago, I think in the 70’s, there was a discussion in Hi-Fi News about which recordings of An American in Paris had the most authentic period Parisian taxi horns. (I was reminded of this by the presenter telling us that the percussionists did a good impersonation of Parisian drivers, waving their horns volatilely in each others’ faces.) The answer, I seem to recall, was the Cleveland/Maazel on Decca. I couldn’t vouch for their authenticity tonight, I’m afraid, but they sounded OK to me.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

An Enigma Wrapped in a Concert

Much as I admire and am really grateful to the BBC for supporting composers when it is terribly difficult to get a new piece played here, let alone actually be paid for it, I didn’t really like Prom 33. Beecham joked once (yes, I know it's hackneyed, but there is still some truth in it) “the English don’t really like music, they just like the noise it makes.”

Maybe because I’m only half-English (despite the name, shan’t tell you what the other half is, you’ll have to guess) I didn’t like the noise Gaudete made, especially early on. But then I’m a poetry sort of person so as a rule I prefer to read Ted Hughes. I did enjoy the musical connections in the first half, though; very clever, I thought. Keeps the brain occupied, even when the emotions might not be. I can see it deserved the applause, though.

I had found Michael Berkeley’s ‘Slow Dawn’ rather enigmatic; and the Enigma Variations, though a very traditional conception (a relief, no doubt, to all those who, wrongly, I think, hated the Elgar 1) was very well played. Now, I really must get back to my neglected pieces . . .And get some proper food into me, which I've been missing this weekend trying to catch up. Music may be the food of love, but even loving the Proms is turning out not to be sufficiently nutritious . . .

R3 Relay

(You'll see I've added a Google Search box for this blog over in the sidebar, since the 'Labels' list is getting rather unwieldy already, and is probably going to become even more so before we're finished, if it doesn't end up totally out of control. Hope it helps to track things down that might not jump out at you immediately, or you've mislaid.)

Messaien/Manchicourt: Club Mix (Prom 32)

I wish, sometimes, the BBC wouldn't try to educate us quite so obviously. Like by interspersing Messaien's "Messe de la Pentecote" with Manchicourt's Missa Veni Creator Spiritus, which I'm listening to now. Fascinating it is, too, in some startling harmonic correspondences. And beautiful singing by BBC Singers and sensitive playing by James O'Donnell.

The trouble is, that to review each properly, I'm going to have to spend time editing my recording on my Mac separating the two—hello, BBC, we Prommers do  have a long enough concentration span to have got the idea if you'd done it that way!—and as you'll have noticed by now, I'm getting a bit behind with some of the other stuff, so it'll have to wait, probably, until after the seven days allowed for listening to it on line are up.

But, if you didn't  hear  the live relay, get your mouse over to the Proms iPlayer when it's up and listen. You'll be well rewarded. Honest. Sneaky way as it may be to force people to listen to both Messaien and Manchicourt in one concert . . .Still, it's one way of doing it, and since I don't choose my concerts by century, or style, or (musical!) prejudice, but I know many do, I oughtn't to complain that the Beeb has to resort to this sort of trick.

(The presenter, delightfully, said "Messien is casting a long shadow over this Proms Season . . ." A bit too long, I think, but I don't think she quite meant it the way I took it.)

Prom 31: Smoochy-coochy

I did wonder if I might have been spoilt for tonight’s ‘jazzy’ Prom, since I stayed up last night to listen to the real thing, as it were, the recording on R3 of the brilliant John Scofield Barbican concert from last year.

So that might be why I found Jason Yarde’s arrangement of Gershwin clever, but relatively unremarkable. And again, maybe I’m being unjust, but I wasn’t that enamoured of his own “Rhythm and Other Fascinations’, but perhaps that was the fault of the audience as percussionists. They were warned that if they didn’t follow the percussionists’ rhythm with their clapping, they’d destroy it.

They completely lost it, I don’t know how, considering quite a fair proportion are usually amateur musicians or music students, and did. I was joining in at home, fairly competently I thought, until then, and they completely threw me, too. I bet this is the first time you’ve read an audience being castigated for their performance at a Prom? (I’m not sure, but I think the R3 engineers attempted a panic-stricken but brave rescue operation by cutting some of the audience mics.) Audience participation without a lot of rehearsal at a Prom is always risky, as Maxwell Davies discovered one year at the Last Night. As they say, don’t call us . . .

Nor, I’m afraid, though all three new pieces were vastly superior to last night’s utterly trivial ‘Javelin’, was I much taken by the over-lush Symcock “Progressions’ , which didn’t seem to progress anywhere like as far as Gershwin, or more likely, Bernstein or Copland, might have taken something like that—and there were some very obvious bits of them and even the MJQ from way back in it when it wasn’t being rather self-consciously ‘big band’ and Ellingtonian.

Beautifully played by the BBC Concert Orchestra, however, and lots of nice twiddly bits on the piano, if you like that sort of thing. Much of the piano part, though, would be nicely at home on a certain American ‘hi-fi buff’s’ label (which I’d better not name for fear of being sued) whose catalogue I once described as ‘music for the sophisticated lift’ somewhere I was sure I wouldn’t be overheard by a lawyer.

And some would have been better placed as a part of a trio than trying to support scoring of this scale. It apparently started as “a three movement concerto, but began to develop”. Quite. Really much too long to support itself, so I’d say it was ‘overdeveloped’. Some composers don’t know when to stop, do they? Nor do some writers once they get going, so I shall hurry on to the Gershwin and the Bernstein . . .

R3 Relay

Prom 31: Jason Yarde (arr.) Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”; Rhythm and other Fascinations; Gwylim Symcock: Progresssions for Piano and Orchestra.