2015 Proms Week 6

After the tremendously ill-focused Beethoven 9 with the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra the radio chatter was rich, for Prom 49, of notions of "Nelsons bringing his new band" from Boston as though the venerable Boston Symphony orchestra had been assembled in his garage.  They "brought" with them two programmes.  The first was I'm pleased to say more focused than his earlier Prom.  The marvellous Håkan Hardenberger was soloist in Brett Dean's Dramatis Personae.  This marvellous cinematic piece has a tremendous impact on radio aurally but also calls for stage movement so I imagine that visually element heightens the impact in the hall - great fun and the highly contrasted and characterised movements make for an almost symphonic sweep.  Great stuff.  Nelson's has generally underwhelmed in Mahler and this Mahler 6 was a great improvement and the orchestra showed well.  It's another Mahler work with which I'm losing interest - it does rather over-do it's point making.  There was nothing new in Nelsons reading but the symphony may well be spent already.

Andras Schiff was hyped too in his late night Bach prom of the Goldberg Variations which promised much but delivered far less.  I've not really enjoyed Schiff's Bach on disc feeling it a tad contrived.  In live performance one could find something of the authentic Schiff one would hope.  He is certainly master of the pianistic sleight of hand, his long, lovingly attended account of the opening aria served to distract from the rather wooden first variation.  His account was more episodic than most: his styling is more self-regarding than I can really see as appropriate in Bach and his wistful flourishes become annoying after a while. His delivery was episodic too - in one or two variations later in the piece his fingers fell over themselves and I didn't last the course.  Not a patch on Ibragimova and some payback for the man who had a few weeks before had, by some accounts, sort to outdo Grigori Sokolov at the Verbier Festival.

I dipped into Prom 51 to hear Andris Nelsons' account of Shostakovich's Tenth symphony with the Boston Symphony.  His new recording with the orchestra has been hailed and there was much to admire in the playing - more so even than the Mahler the previous night.  But the reading didn't tell us as much as the fine readings extant on record and though always a barnstormer for a Proms audience this Shostakovich needs a rest now - there are better symphonies.

Thierry Escaich's account of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor was an absolute train wreck with registrations all over the place and problems either with the volume of the instruments or the sound recording. I lost interest thereafter....

Jeremy Denk was a name I've heard but whose pianism I had not savoured - now I want it all.  And more than that I want to hear his words about music and read them too.  Denk brought back memories of Julius Kitchen - a towering virtuoso who can say more about a piece in a few words than most of us could write in a lifetime.  Denk's little introduction to the fateful last sonata of Beethoven with which he concluded his recital left me in tears and in wonder at his grasp of the music and the eternal.  He started the Prom with a ripe, dark and robust account of the Piano Sonata No 9 "Black Mass" by Scriabin and then, as Denk described the "Hungarian Groove" of the Piano Sonata by Bartok a complex and challenging piece for play and listener.  In both we had a sense of his clarity of vision despite the dizzying rhythms in the second and dense harmonies in the first. And then we had op 111.  I dare say if I listened again and didn't get transported to another place I'd be able to analyse how he played it but Denk's style is obscure to me - it is a mixture of nuance and selective transparency - but it transfixed me.  In the manner of the popular scholar he talks (for example in his illustrated talks which are on his Goldbergs disc) of hands chasing, the confluence of ideas - all easy to grasp but all happening at once on complex scores, and in the manner of the Romantic virtuoso he doesn't get nailed down to one style  - he goes where the mood takes him.  What a shrewd judge of mood. Most of all, he does so with no reticence about convention.  A marvellous Chamber Music Prom.

Salonen brought us Orango, Gerald McBurney's completion of Shostakovich's unfinished satirical opera about a half ape half man...despite the recording and this fine performance I can't hear a masterpiece in there...yet.  The first half of this prom was more conventional and entirely welcome.  Salon's way with Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin was helped by the meaty attack by the fearless Philharmonia - they are wonderful in these complex scores.  David Fray was the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto K491 No 24- a chamber sized Philharmonia - what a treat and for the first time I found myself warming to this work.  Lovely respite from the savagery either side.

It was the first and last appearance of the South West (German) Radio Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden and Frieburg. Francois Xavier Roth made a commendable speech about their fate of being merged as a result of cuts before their encore which was underlined by tremendous playing before it. Boulez is the meat and drink of this orchestra and this conductor and so their first half '... explosante-fixe ...' was something of a centrepiece of the Boulez at 90 celebration in this years Proms.  It's not a piece I know well (who does?) but it has an ice-like clarity in the the hands of these experts.  They followed in the second half with Ligeti's Lontano - superbly realised and then for the those looking for a popular foothold, a superbly detailed and compelling account of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.  A sad hello and goodbye from a premiere radio orchestra often at the vanguard of music in the last century.

Prom 57 had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Sir Bernard Haitink played Schubert, Mozart and more Schubert.  This grand conductor has a propensity to leave me a little short in some of his conducting of my favourites: Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and the like.  But he surprised me in his conducting of Vaughan Williams and Debussy.  Haitink is a champion of the enticing Overture in the Italian Style by Schubert at the Proms - he's conducted half the six performances.  I really enjoyed my introduction to it and found the COE full of that energy which bustles pieces along and that understanding - nurtured by Abbado according to Maria João Pires - of a small group playing as a tight chamber ensemble.  Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23 with the Portuguese flowed wonderful but didn't really thrill me as much as some.  But it was never stately and her attention to every note is compelling.  It's not my kind of Mozart but her enduring appeal is more important.  Haitink and the COE gave us a very fine Schubert 9 - that tight ensemble never flagging through Schubert's most bizarre string and wind passagework.  As with most Haitink performances it's a quick ignition at the high points but the rest was as noble, singing and stirring as the music can be.  Great end to the concert and a fantastic week.


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