Proms 63 and 64: Beware of Giants

Two giants of the podium brought their orchestras to the Proms in penultimate week of the season: Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Esa Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia.  It was a chance to hear these orchestras in full song with their world class conductors in repertoire largely of their choosing:-

Prom 63

Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor - Overture

Peter Eötvös: DoReMi
UK Premiere

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major

Midori violin
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor

Salonen and the Philharmonia were on top form despite both having busy summers of good works - not least Salonen's hypnotic Elektra at the Aix festival.  The Philharmonia string sound was the best I heard of any at the Proms - full, silky, lithe and responsive but most pleasingly of all unanimous.  And their account of the Mozart overture was the best Mozart I've heard in a long time (there's hardly been any at the Proms this year, nor Haydn - shame).  

The Eötvös violin concerto, his second, was a charm - wry humour (quoting from Hermann's Psycho score) and intense, terse forms delivered with vivid orchestration show him at his best and the fiendish part for violin was beautifully balanced been bold, bravura virtuosity and concertante work by Midori (DoReMi = MiDoRe geddit?).  The Radio 3 announcer told us she was slightly amplified and I guess that worked well because it wasn't intrusive - on the radio at least.  

Doom-mongers and sentimentalists like to write pieces like this off.  And maybe the large orchestras they sometimes require will limit repeat performances.  Here for example - from publisher Schott's website - is the instrumentation for DoReMi:

Orchestra instrumentation: 3 (2. auch Picc., 3. auch Altfl.) · 2 (2. auch Engl. Hr.) · 3 (2. auch Es-Klar., 3. auch Bassklar.) · 2 (2. auch Kfg.) - 2 · 2 · 1 · 0 - S. (I [links]: Glsp. · Trgl. [t.] · Bong. (sehr h.) · 2 Röhren (Metall) · Sizzle-Beck. · Marac. · 3 Woodbl. · Chin. Dom-Beck. [t.] - II [Mitte]: Crot. · Xyl. · Trgl. [m.] · Röhrengl. · 2 Gongs · Caxixi · Guiro [m./h.] · Chin. Dom-Beck. [m.] - III [rechts]: Cowbells · 2 Beck. [t./m.] · Trgl. [h.] · Bong. [h.]· Sizzle-Beck. · Marac. · Tamb. · Chin. Dom-Beck. [h.] · Tamt. [t.]) (3 Spieler) - Hfe. · Cel. - Str. (8 · 6 · 6 · 6 · 4 [3./4. 5-Saiter])

But the piece deserves more outings and yet concert programmes are mainly becoming more conservative - at least we know the co-commissioners, Leipzig Gewandhaus and LA Philharmonic, have given it an outing.

Turning to Bruckner - a composer I don't readily associate with Salonen but one he says is very close to him.  There has been a fight over most of the other symphonies regarding what project managers would call version control.  Nos 5, 6 and 7 are pretty much as originally conceived, aside from the inclusion in No 7 of some percussion to highlight the climax in the Adagio.  It's pretty much played now as Bruckner would have heard it at the concert which turned him from nerd to symphonist in December 1864 - at least, played in orchestral terms that is.  The variations in approach to this symphony are legion and since it was first recorded in 1924 by Oscar Fired we've been able to hear a welter of those approaches for ourselves.  In my Bruckner induction - the way was split by two great Bruckner conductors - Eugen Jochum favoured a more varied approach to tempo and phrasing, Karajan was more rigid in tempo and legato in phrasing.  They both looked back to significant predecessors.  Salonen is of the Jochum type but brings many of his own felicitous insights to the score.  But for one reason or another it didn't work for me.  It was beautifully played, but a little too often I missed the grand oceanic slow rise and fall of the music. The finale is a problem in this work - not quite substantial enough to balance the musical weight of the first and second movements - it needs special treatment to give it punch.  Salonen went for the fast approach - it works when it comes with sufficient punch - but not for me this time.

Prom 64

Bantock: The Witch of Atlas

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major

Sibelius: Pohjola's Daughter

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Anika Vavic piano, Proms debut artist
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski conductor

Bantock has featured in this years proms and perhaps that is only fair given his absence in recent decades.  But sometimes i find his lovely orchestration and simple, attractive ideas just go on too long.  The Witch of Atlas (which clearly nod towards various tone poems by Strauss and Sibelius) is a third longer or shorter than it should be. I heard the Celtic Sym live - a kind vague Celtic sophistication framed in a symphonic garb.  Wallfisch's Sapphic Poem earlier in the season slide by me without much impact. There's a welcome simplicity to Bantock for many - but it lacks that terse authenticity that Bax, Vaughan Williams and Grainger brought to the folk genre: it has the air of of a tribute act to various folk traditions.  The performance was poised and welcome for those seeking more English content.

In my live listening the London Philharmonic have been variable in the last few seasons - even the boy wonder Yannick Nézet-Séguin couldn't conjure a decent concert last I heard him.  I have some sympathy with the players heavy workload but generally they are better under Jurowski than their various guests.  There was something amiss in their relationship with the young Russian pianist Anika Vavic - and her tense approach to the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev set a trend for the reading which didn't really improve, to my ear, as the piece went on - despite the resolute recovery by Vavic.

Problems carried over to Pohjola's Daughter - to be blunt I'd expect a great orchestra under their Principle Conductor to make a better job.  Entries were blurred as were internal balances.  And my big worry about this orchestra is that there's something not quite together about them sometimes.  The orchestra can play Sibelius with style - as concerts under Vänskä have shown.

But the buzz before the concert on social media was about Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Its the orchestral showpiece du jour - subject of much hyped currently as Dudamel's live recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is being heavily pushed pre-release by Deutsche Grammophon.

It was not a reading in which I could find much to get excited about - Jurowski emphasised some of the brass lines which cast interesting lights on the progress of teh climaxes but overall it was to little effect.  Some might have argued that this was all that was necessary in one of Strauss' earliest tone poems.  All we should be interested in, they might say, is how the tone matches the mechanistic headings in Strauss think piece.  But this is - for some of us - one of Strauss's most profound works tackling his most lifelong pre-occupation with man and nature: as fascinating to him in the Daphne myth as in the preoccupations of 19th century German philosophy.  That man and nature duality is profoundly intertwined with Strauss' reading of Nietzsche. In the depths of time Karajan revealed something desperately serious about this work and managed to reveal his orchestral primacy at the same time: he swept all before him: digging deeper without missing the shallower picture.

And so I end up asking myself when are these men of learning and conducting genius going to produce a novel, competent and telling reading of the familiar?  But I also ask myself why I'm so resistant - as in Salonen's Bruckner - when they do...


What a lovely collection of classic music, I'll try listening to these, Thanks.

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