Proms 2015 - week 1

First week of the 2015 Proms

The BBC's forward publicity on the Proms promises great things and indeed there have already been some.  The incessent ads and hype do sometimes obscure the really boons - The Proms phone app has been a long time coming but it has appeared and it will put my bookmarked Prom into my dairy.  The underlying education programme from composer portraits and Proms extra events are becoming more valuable too.  I even found Tom Service more measured on his presentation of the five Prokofiev concerti.

A week or so before the Proms Stephen Kovacevich had given a Wigmore Hall recital which I think it's fair to say didn't go well.  The pianist repeated the last movement of a Schubert sonata to try and salvage something and this was well received by his audience.  Sean Raffety, for Radio 3 said he was "brave" but in general Radio folk don't comment on performance except to eulogise about it.  It becomes self defeating. If they weighed up the performance in the same way as they do for football or cricket I think Radio 3 would be a different animal.

All of which is pertinent because so often at the Prom the music doesn't live up to expectation.  Occasionally it does, but the presenter's assessment of Andris Nelson's Beethoven Nine (Prom 4) was completely over the top compared to my experience of it.  The soloists were weak - this went unremarked upon. The chorus were clearer in their diction than the foursome and that was mostly due to Nelson's unaccommodating tempo in a huge hall. The chorus were the best thing about this performance.  In conception it hasn't changed markedly since I reviewed a radio relay of a performance in Birmingham in 2013.  It's an uneven conception, which in my view mistakes local detail for a view of how the whole piece should be constructed: most significantly for me, while the conductor glories in some intricacies he misses the frightening force of Beethoven's conception.  It is lacking in power (still!) when the structure of the symphony demands it. The execution was good but no more, some entries were awkward and the orchestra didn't seem alert enough to the conductors well spring of surprises - plus the CBSO aren't the band they were.  Nelson has been spreading himself thinly though that's no longer a problem so much as the absence of successor. Radio 3 and the Guardian thought it all very magnificent - I'm very sure it wasn't.  Badly conceived and not well executed - and you can't blame the soloists and orchestra when the conductor can't get his message across to them let alone us.

Prom 1 was much more interesting.  Oramo led a fine first half of Nielsen and a new piece called Dadaville from Gary Carpenter dazzled.  Lars Vogt was a rather romantic soloist in the timeless D Minor Piano Concerto No 20 by Mozart.  It was old fashioned, big band Mozart with great span and weight - though soloist and orchestra were disconnected at times.  The second half was limp then bold.  Walton's Belshazzar's Feast has been a stalwart of Proms and first night programming and it's a snorter of a piece when delivered with the drama and precision that Oramo delivered and of course the BBC Symphony and the choruses deployed were brilliant as was Christopher Maltman with his imperious contribution.

The first Chamber music prom featured Tallis from Andrew Carwood directing The Cardinall's Musick - lovely sound, lovely idea.  Cheryl Frances-Hoad's new piece "From the Beginning of the World" occupies a Tallis-like adventurous harmonic element but the subject matter needs some consideration.

Turning to Prom 5 and John Storgard's at the helm of what I think is still, by a whisker, the top BBC orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic.  They gave us a bizarre programme with an odd disposition of pieces.  A scant first half comprised Haydn's La Reine symphony.  We don't get much Haydn from the BBC Phil but as you might expect they are well equipped to play it.  Seamless, bright and delicate
strings are as gorgeous as any string section you'll hear in Europe and the woodwind sections - heard wonderfully here - are both characterful and yet a close knit band - attentive to each others phrasing and a balance for the rest of the orchestra.

HK Gruber's second Percussion Concerto "Into the Open" has a significant backstory and in particular a point in it's creation where the composer heard of the death of an inspirational influence and close friend which altered it's trajectory.  It is a compelling piece which will need and deserves repeated performances and close attention from the listener.  The tuned percussion becomes a much more lyrical element in this ever evolving work.  It has moments of gripping pain and others of heart melting tranquility.  I haven't heard a percussion work of such emotional impact since the very different "From Me Flows What You Call Time" by Takemitsu.  And it left me reeling at the second audition.  The orchestra played well but the star was always going to be Colin Currie who carried off his part with great technical finesse but much more significantly huge expressive power and élan.

In contrast the 19i1 version of Petrushka - the final piece was a bit lumpy at times.  Storgards exhibits a tendency to emphasise and sometimes this knocks the progress of the orchestra and the pice.  And whilst it's a wonderful show case I think the orchestra had nothing much left that would outshine the concerto.  It was a fine performance but some how over shadowed by it's neighbour which should i think have been before the interval not after it.

Prom 7 had former chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis back at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a concert which was I think designed to ebb and flow.  The new piece in the programme was a work for orchestra and chorus by Hugh Wood called Epithalamion.  It is I suspect the most accessible new work in this half of the Prom season and it matched a fine feeling for the English choral tradition with a joyful poem by John Donne.  It breezes along. I enjoyed it for it's exuberance and great pinnacles of sound, though on only one hearing I probably don't do it's many smaller glories much justice.

Prom 9 was the first of three concerts of Leif Ove Adnes' final lap of his Beethoven Journey: all five of the Beethoven Piano Concerti (plus the Choral Fantasy) - I'll say more about my bewilderment at this challenge he'd set himself in my next post.  The first concert comprised the First and Third Concerti sandwiching a rather heavy and inelegant account of the marvellous Apollon Musagète by Stravinsky - much of the damage here was done by the microphone placing which rendered ethically too far back in the sound picture.  But the Mahler Chamber Orchestra didn't make the most of it;'s exquisite turns and balletic shapes.


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