BBC Proms 2016: Week 3

The BBC Proms Week 3 began with two unnecessary Proms.  Prom 18 was Mahler's Third Symphony from Bernard Haitink, one of his favourite works, with the London Symphony Orchestra.  It's a shame that this fantastic musician and this fine orchestra dwell on this monstrous waste of concert time.  It is rumoured to be his last performance of the work and I can't blame him for that.  His inspirational conducting pleased prommers and orchestra alike but we have to get over our Mahler blind spot - it's an incoherent, excessive ramble. One Gramophone critic on Twitter told me everything Mahler wrote is a masterpiece - people here know my view that it most certainly isn't.  When asked was Mahler right to drop the programme Haitink said "yes", I wonder why he thought that?  For me the trendy pantheism Mahler was promoting through the titles reveal just how empty some of the music is: just note spinning?  I would have preferred Mahler had kept the programme but dropped the symphony…  Prom 19 was a tribute to David Bowie, there are many ways to do a tribute when you are a national broadcaster but putting on a Prom seems to me to be very odd indeed.  I hear it was heart-warming, I respect Andre de Ridder and his group of instrumentalists, and I'm sad for performers from the pop world who can't sing in tune.  But a Prom in the Royal Albert Hall - it seems to me to be in the wrong place.

Prom 20: Sir John Eliot Gardiner gave us Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette - a choral symphony distilling the very essence of the play (some would say) - what a brilliant work this is. And coincidently it's my next topic in Spring Symphonies.  JEG brought along his crack orchestra of authentic instruments Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir and the National Youth Choir of Scotland plus three fine soloists: Julie Boulianne, Jean -Pasul Fouchecourt and Larent Naouri.  It was a performance which blossomed in the glorious space of the RAH and given JEG's love of the drama.  As usual he took the faster movement at quite a lick but dwelt a while in the heavenly slow singing and solo work.  His pacing wasn't as convincing as FX Roth's performance at the Klara Festival last year but it remained a magnetic weaving of Berlioz's magic both at intimate and large scale.  The slow movement positively hung heavy with the scent of evening in Verona in west London - which is no mean feat.  It was televised too.  You should catch it - it's great to have such a fine performance at the Proms of the full piece.

Prom 21 had the Aurora orchestra doing what they do best - innovating.  Fresh from Westfield shopping centre where they gave an impromptu performance of Mozart's last symphony a,mid the shoppers,  they presented a wonderful programme of exquisite beauty and some recklessness.  Wolfgang Rihm's Gejagte Form "Hunted Form" (2002) was a piquant opener - hardly for the Ten Pieces crew (though it should be).  It was a clear and clean as a bell - that crystalline effect that Rihm and his teacher Boulez, demand for ultimate realisation.  The audience were very attentive - I think there's an urgency about Collon's conducting that demands it.  Francois Leleux was soloist in Strauss' Oboe Concerto.  Although often presented as a flower of Strauss' reflective and threnody-imbued last period: it's not just a sad song.  It is full of challenges for conductor and orchestra.  A 60 bar opening paragraph for the soloist ensure it is testing from the off.  Circular breathing is required and probably not just by the soloist as the conductor balances change of mood on change of mood.  In effect it's one long complex exposition.  I love it - Leleux played it very well and so did the orchestra under the versatile Collon.  They repeated the Mozart symphony in the hall - once again the  "without the score" was used and it worked very well.  There's something much more invigorating about this reading than Rohrer's No 39 and that could just be about the players having to listen to each other that bit harder.

Prom 22 was a curiosity.  Edward Gardner conducted a rather limp BBCSO in Ravel - the Mother Goose Suite and Debussy's La Mer.  Rarely I think has Eastbourne been more apparent than the Med in a reading - it didn't catch the sun, sea and sex much.  In between was the UK Premiere of Lera Auerbach's "The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie" with the enthusiastic Crouch End Festival Chorus and counter tenor Andrew Watts and the well worked Vadim Gluzman as violin soloist.  Tom Service would no doubt say it's a rather mad work, but I have to admit I struggled to turn it off.  As long as the bizarre poetry is refreshed and the choral, orchestral and instrumental challenges maintained I think it would work well - though it might have a less high brow version for children too.  But it was the centre piece if only because it was hard to catagorise…and that's a VERY good thing.

Prom 23 had John Storgards leading the BBC Philharmonic in his usual mix of the fascinating and neglected: his programmes are a highlight for me. This Prom was topped off by Nielsen's Fifth symphony which he and the orchestra record in 2014 and have played several times in concert in Manchester.

It's a symphony which I find very hard to hear - amongst the highly charged emotions of both movements and the dramatic set pieces which in many ways represent the culmination of the symphonic output of the composer (his Sixth symphony is something on a distillation in my book).  There's much that requires attention in the Fifth and yet it also needs driving on.  It's a delicate balance.  Storgards falls in the forensic camp and sometimes as a result he seems - say in comparison with Vänskä - to hold back.   The great climax of the first movement with side drum saboteur never seen quite achieves the force I'm looking for but the subsequent coda was sublime. The second movement quickly fills the RAH with a swirling almost dizzy-making series of threads.  It starts in pastoral vein but quickly picks up a manic quality.  With Storgards these motorist if rhythms and clusters of fragments half distorted and half remembered become hugely significant and his method is I think to give them full voice and space.  They sound more conspicuous than in other readings. As ever with Nielsen the complexity of this bundle of halves and quarters of themes and ebb and flow into and out of a unified whole.  Storgards is unrelenting in his refusal to give the listener a hand - it's brilliantly tense and dramatic. It's fascinating but not compelling in the way others have bowled me over in this work.  More compelling and indeed attractive was the UK premiere of Armenia by Jörn Widman - a fascinating sound world built on the sound and texture of the glass harmonica.  Less can be said for the Schumann Violin concerto which like some Schumann I find deeply unfathomable - at least in this work I know I'm following a long tradition.  Sibelius' insistent Tempest was very well done.

Prom 24 I was sad to miss the live experience of Ginestera's Ollentay given as the first piece (and Proms premiere) by Juanjo Mena leading the BBCPO. It's contrasting delicate and ferocious sections were just the thing for an opening salvo for this the most powerful and eloquent of the BBC orchestras. The legend on which the Argentine composer based the piece has its own stirring drama and although Ginestera wouldn't be the first composer I'd think of for tone poems this was evidence that he packed a powerful punch.  The marvellous Steven Osborne followed as soloist in Britten's Piano concerto, he threw himself with typical verve and spine-tingling attack into the piece and the orchestra were as bright and unabashed as the score demands.  His encore of Ravel was a lovely way to calm everyone down.  I heard Mena and the BBCPO do Schubert's Ninth symphony a couple of years ago in Manchester and he had made the reading even more compact and the tight ensemble (despite the absence of some woodwind leads) even more disciplined.  I don't know why I love this piece - it's length certainly isn't heavenly and the tunes aren't typically Schubertian.  But the piece has a hypnotic quality and great sense of occasion, not least when in the last movement he quotes from Beethoven and two worlds seem to be unified.  Schubert - in remission from his syphilis - probably didn't anticipate that he would never hear the work - but it needs performances like Mena's to reveal how far Schubert moved things on.  Marvellous.

Prom 26 was just two works - both showstoppers in their way.  Brahms Second Piano Concerto - I think a very difficult work to bring off even in expert hands and Reinbert de Leeuw's Night Wanderer in it's UK premiere - a piece new to me.

Peter Serkin was pianist and Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Serkin's reading was an utterly serious affair: his approach was detailed, sometimes deliberate and searching and it shone a bright light on Brahms piano writing.  But it was ill-met with Knussen's energetic conducting and the piece seemed to be in two minds.  I was reminded of the famous disclaimer Bernstein issued at the start of his concert of the first concerto with the mercurial Glenn Gould as soloist.  There was super playing from the orchestra especially the wind leads and horns.  But how I yearned for attack in the second movement and the third movement with it's famous solo cello was just a bit less mysterious and the final movement though darker still remains for me one of Brahms' biggest miscalculations.  Serkin was concentrated throughout - some will like it.  But the whole reading was a little too clinical for me: though I concede this is perhaps what Brahms needs every now and then.  "Der Nächliche Wanderer" by Reinbert de Leeuw is a tone poem with musical as well as a narrative influence.  It starts with a tape of a dog barking, more on that when I've listened to it two more times….

Time and space doesn't permit me to cover the Chamber Prom of Satie pieces - Alexandre Tharaud was somewhat wasted against Alastair McGowen's appropriation of Satie's personna for a cabaret - sadly too often the audience didn't quite get it.  The surprise, which shouldn't be a surprise, was in Prom 25 where the Royal Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit presenting Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Dutoit is doing marvellous things for the RPO's confidence and to hear them in this repertoire is great.
Another surprisingly good week but those who played safe were not rewarded.



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