2015 Proms week 8 and concluding comments

The late night Bach prom to round off that Bach miniseries was an uninterrupted complete performance of the Bach Cello Suites by Yo Yo Ma.  It's a performance challenge and you have to take your hat off to the 60 year old American for holding the audience in rapt attention for two and three quarter hours.  But it did not have the same intimacy as Ibragimova in the solo Violin pieces.

Prom 70 -Yuri Temirkanov and the St  Petersburg Philharmonic were at the Proms in their first visit in 11 years for a sadly conservative Prom programme.  The pianist Nikolai Lugansky, soloist in that most conventional of country, suggested that we "just listen" to the orchestra to hear it's special qualities.  Well I tried but this is not the same orchestral sound as I heard (in it's Leningrad guise) in Manchester in the 1990s - the hues aren't as dark and the woodwind have lost much of that edge they had.  But they still make a fine job of these warhorses thanks to superb musicianship and the safe pair of hands at the helm.  Tchaikovsky's Francesca di Rimini is one of my favourite pieces by the composer and whilst it lack some of the tumultuous power I've heard give it, this performance no doubt filled the Hall and set the bar for visceral music this week.  Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto happened - Lugansky is a fine pianist but it didn't overcome it's limitations for me. I find all the swooning around this concerto a bit hard to take, I wonder if the idea of it has become bigger than the thing itself: some of the orchestration is quite banal too. The 1960's version of the Penguin Guide to the symphony notes that without the first symphony, Rachmaninov wouldn't be in there at all...And much as I like his singing plush slow movement themes and fine sense of how to finish a movement off, there's still a lot which is a bit too static for me.  I think many of his works are hanging on through some sort of received wisdom: why the Second Symphony gets so much attention is beyond me.  Lugansky gave us one of the Tableaux Etude, Op 33 for an encore - in some sense this was the best of his showcasing of Rachmaninov.  Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov is something we don't hear too often.  The colour is there but the content isn't - it doesn't attempt to be a symphony officially.  The only performance of a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony at the proms was the UK premiere of his Second 'Antar" in 1900.  Scheherazade has had 45 performances (including this one) but it's popularity now doesn't match it's popularity in the 1950s.

Scheherazade - Proms performances per decade

Whatever the ins and outs of popularity this is an immensely enjoyable piece, if you can put aside the misogyny in its premise (easier now John Adams has issued his own orchestral rebuttal).  This orchestra do play very well for Temirkanov and there's no doubt the Prommers lapped it up.  But there was no new writing in their programmes. I'd have much rather heard them play Vaughan Williams' Job than Elgar's Enigma in Prom 71.  Coupling that old and very wrinkled chestnut with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto was enough to put Prom 71 out of scope for this survey.

Definitely in scope was a tantalising programme from Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra - Prom 72 comprised Nielsen and Ives in choral form and the Nielsen Violin Concerto with Henning Kraggerud as soloist.  This concerto has been a bit of a bugbear for me.  I recall seeing Vänskä conduct it (with Kavakos from memory) and the London audience being completely baffled by it - applauding virtually every time the music stopped.  It's 2 movement structure belies the four musical parts and it's sometimes touch to pick one's way through the multi-layered melodic textures.  Its one of this epics which isn't cracked by "music on in the background' listening.  It's coming to me now - not least given the fine playing of the Norwegian Kraggerud and the sensible pacing and clarity of Andrew Litton.  Kraggerud gave the encore of the Proms too - Postlude No 10 from his own work Equinox.

Litton's magic didn't quite work in Nielsen's nostalgic Springtime on Fünen - sadly there was a air of uncertainty - more evidence of the BBC Symphony's punishing schedule?  As predicted the children's choirs stole the show.  After the interval we had the Fourth symphony of Charles Ives which I haven't heard in a long time.  The orchestra and choirs (BBC Singers and the Crouch End Festival Chorus) gave us four hymn tunes to listen out for - context if you will.  Litton led a marvellous performance and for the first time I could well see this work as the pinnacle of Ives' expression. It bloomed in the RAH acoustic and Litton knew just how to use it and the spatial effects worked splendidly even on radio.  It was a performance for me which made a significant difference to my understand and appreciation of it's beauty.  A great way for the BBC Symphony Orchestra to end the run of proper concerts before ether jelly slinging of the last night.

The final Prom in my survey is Prom 73, the inestimable Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra came to visit with on this occasion a programme of Brahms and Franz Schmidt symphonies.  The conductor was Semyon Bychov.  One might expect a special sound from the Vienna Phil and truth be told they still sound like the home orchestra in this kind of music and more identifiable than the St Petersburg Philharmonic on this week's auditions.  They have a lovely sound in Brahms and it's not just deep pile, there's transparency to and that hint of the Magyar in their phrasing and balance.  Bychkov is a wonderful conductor - but he chose Brahms' most enigmatic symphony and I think chose to circle at a distance the abyss: it's dark side was viewed at a distance.  This symphony needs an unyielding ferocity at times and Bychkov is anything but a fierce conductor.  We might describe his current pre-occupation with Franz Schmidt's Second Symphony as something of a campaign.  I hardly know the symphonies of Schmidt and so hearing one live - albeit relayed by radio - was an enticing prospect.  His sell didn't work this time.  It seems at a superficial hearing too long and too nice.  Schmidt is more than that but the former militates against many re-hearings online and I'm sorry to say I think it will be a long time before I hear it again.  In this orchestra he had the best advocates and people at home in the kind of language Schmidt used.  Schmidt's style is notably reminiscent of much of the generations immediately preceding him.  Like Zemlinksy and Korngold, the ghosts walk the score to the detriment of the living notes.  I will get to grips with this symphony and maybe then more of his own voice will led my appreciation of this symphony.

Conclusions on Proms 2015

It has been many years since I listened to a season entirely from afar.  In recent time access to the Proms has been extended to the internet in very acceptable sound and to download for listening offline, it also included a trial of surround sound 4.0 - which I didn't try, and all available for 30 days.  We can glory in the sounds and sometimes sights all over again, when we've missed we can catch up and we can dismiss those nights of Proms that are not to our taste (there were rather too many of those).  The season failed to grab me when I read the prospectus but I suppose three things have stood out:

There was one stand out performance over two nights, quite unlike anything I have seen or heard before, clearly the finest concerts and finest musicianship.  Elena Ibragimova's Bach transported us to another world - deeper and richer than the Cello Suites, more technically challenging and humane than the Goldberg Variations.  Big names failed to deliver these latter pieces.  It is no accident that Ibragimova was in four Proms,  I'd have listened to her in forty!  I just hope they will be captured for posterity.

Boulez is still a powerful force in new music and more venerated than ever.  Thanks to the efforts of many fine conductors most notably Barenboim we have been better acclimatised to Boulez's music in the last few years.  This - his 90th year - has shown him to be on the cutting edge for performers and audiences.

The well known orchestras continue to underwhelm the well known conductors delivered: Oramo, Gardiner, Roth and Knussen delighted.

Best new piece: HK Gruber's Percussion concerto "into the open..." Colin Currie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds

Best orchestral piece: Vaughan Williams: Sancta Civets Tritschler, Paterson, Halle Choir, Halle Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder

Best instrumental piece: Beethoven, Piano Sonata No 32, Op111 - Jeremy Denk

And it's with Denk I'll sign off.  In summing up on Op 111 before playing it, Denk said the wisest words on our lives and facing death I've every encountered and they will stick with for a long time yet.  He said, and I quote,

"...it's (Op 111) a real miracle, and what's amazing about this piece, is it's a simple paradox the first movement, entirely consumed with Bach and C Minor and the Beethoven's own past, all consumed with the past, the first movement is incredibly impatient, and the second movement, that looks to the future, is absolutely patient."

Only the Proms can bring these kind of people, with this kind of wisdom into our homes are cars and commuting and into our heads when the world tries to crowd everything of beauty out.


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