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.