BBC Proms 2016 - Week 8 and some reflections

My overall assessment of this year's Proms offered some weeks after it finished is that it was not a season of great concerts but there were great performances of very fine pieces - just not many.  I went to three and could have gone to two or three more but the programming was weak.  The "second performance" problem still remains for new pieces though I was please to see "Caterline in Winter" on a BBCNOW programme the other day.  The last two weeks were particularly disappointing: great orchestras plodding through the usual pieces, offering short measure or low energy. 

Pick of the Proms
BBCPO/Noseda & soloists - Beethoven Missa Solemnis
Sir John Eliot Gardiner - Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet
Michael Berkley: Violin Concerto
Helen Grime's new work "Two Eardley Pictures"
Philharmonia/Salonen - Schonberg and Dutilleux
Dutilleux tributes
Oramo - Haydn: Symphony No 34
BBCSSO/Volkov - Grisey and Mozart
Les Arts Florrissant/Christie: Bach B Minor Mass

Prom 64 - Sir Simon brought the Berliner Philharmoniker as they were dubbed on the broadcast (presumably for corporate reasons since the concert was televised (if that's the right word) on the orchestra's own music channel.  The programme was risky though some might remember the association between one work conductor and orchestra.  As filler (not much of one to be honest) Rattle paid tribute to Boulez with his explosive, ambiguous Eclat - the piece Boulez wrote in 1965, not it's unfinished regeneration Eclat/Multiples.  It was beautifully done. Mahler 7 was the piece which back in the late nineties convinced the Berlin orchestra that Rattle should succeed Claudio Abbado.  Some off air recordings of Rattle's first performance of the piece with them have been in circulation but subsequently he's recorded it with them and this rendition wasn't much different from his previous performances or recordings with this orchestra and no doubt they won't differ much with the London Symphony Orchestra.  It's a work Rattle loves and nurtures a lot of attention on, but for me it's the wrong kid of attention.  He lingers over phrases, punctuates lines with undue emphasis and ruins the flow - just as I felt when I first heard him conduct it in the Birmingham recording.  It was well played but having sucked the power from it, the players played a series of beautiful cameos in a badly translated play.

Prom 67 Gustavo Dudamel's Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra ( now eschewing it's Venezeulan roots) offered a travesty of concert - 63 minutes music by the BBC website timings,  banal music and not that well played or conducted.  A European tour is still a novelty for this orchestra but against the other visitors this was low voltage, low value and hardly what the orchestra deserved.  There were encores

Barenboim sat at the piano amidst the Berlin orchestra for Prom 69 to deliver Mozart's C Minor Piano Concerto No 24 and whilst I think he loves these concerti -this one is harder to love in my book.  The conductor soloist described it as a dialogue but it's quite bland fare compared with it's immediate predecessor in the series.  No vivacity.  It worked sort of… Bruckner's Fourth symphony rarely works for me and Barenboim would have been better off playing any of it's predecessors which he does so well.  The Fourth is a classic work in the "..liking the noise it makes…" category.  I admit a frisson in my youth listening to Zdenek Mecal's clean-lined account on a Classics for Pleasure and later Karajan's DG account which is so rich and powerful.  All this changed after reading Robert Simpson's writing on the symphony: what we hear now is a poor, cobbled together symphony - you wonder how anyone has the nerve to programme it.  I have a feeling Barenboim's previous outing of the Fourth was with the Vienna Philharmonic.  The Berliners make a nicer noise and have been playing Bruckner with Barenboim in cycle after cycle,  But it has lost it's charm and I think it will be an earlier edition which wins me over, if I'm ever won over.  The Prommers loved it - they LOVE the noise music makes.

The second concert, Prom 70, was a much more successful affair with Barenboim performing wonders with the D major concert on No 25 making it sing for me in a way which brought out real character.  The orchestra jumped into the Sixth Symphony of Bruckner as though there were old hands and it came together in a way that many conductors just fail to grasp.  It is Bruckner's least conventional completed symphony harmonically and it is held in high regard by many though we have so few recordings from the greats so it is not well known.  Barenboim is rather less interested in its beauty than it's trajectory but the orchestra played it well (they know it well) and it was a glorious outcome from two rather different concerts.

In Prom 71 Daniil Trifonov brought  Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto to the boil in a way that I've not heard before.  I wonder if some thought what he did to this most familiar of the concerti was a little grotesque.  He certainly imbued it with a tremendous energy and equalised the voicing in a way which made it sound complicated (so complicated he lost his way in the first movement) modern and so refreshingly contrapuntal that it was a different work to the one I heard in my youth.  The cadanza were mesmerising and one got that guilty feeling afterwards - as one does with Trifonov - that the piece becomes subservient to the pianist in one's mind (though not in his I think and that's his neat trick).  This wasn't even what you would call big-boned Mozart, more concentrated and energetic than that.  I loved it but I wouldn't want all performance to to take that track.  In the interval on the radio we heard about Thieleman's insouciance about the version of Bruckner's Third Symphony he and the Dresden orchestra would present was something of a stereotype of his style.  He's done the first version in Munich, he preferred the third version but he though he might try the second version and was buoyed up by the idea Haitink had done it in Dresden. The playing was exact enough but his alleged grip on architecture wasn't evident to me and frankly the whole thing sounded like a bore for him - in the interview he admitted he'd go back to the Third version next time.  Big deal maestro.  When Jonathan Nott presented the first version at the Proms a few years ago I winced through it all.  It's a flawed symphony, least flawed by the intervening hands of others.  Stick with the Third version please - we're really not that interested in conductors who are merely curious.

The penultimate Prom , Prom 74 Was devoted to the annual Verdi Requiem - after the Missa Solemnis, the Mozart Requiem and C Major Mass this was something of a risk.  Choral overload.  In truth there are many more choral works screaming for an airing at the proms.  But we get the same old pieces recycled.  Marin Alsop is a fine conductor but I lost interest in this reading early on.  The work was to my ear ill-balanced with the delicate the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment not providing the energy the late 19th Century pieces require in the same way as say Les Siecles would, so they were ill-matched with the big Verdi voices of four splendid soloists and radiant choral tones.  It fell between two stools neither personal enough in the more reflective moments nor energetic enough in showpieces.

Final reflection:  I won't and can't talk about the Last Night of the Proms - it is not a musical event by my reckoning.  But so much of the Proms season is no longer about these events.  When I was a kid and showing an interest in Beethoven and the like, my Dad would call it serious music.  Jurowski uses that word too.  Radio 3 has an educative role and probably badging itself a serious music service would not be useful, but they are in so many ways not giving the music the attention it deserves.  Sloppy programming, number of concerts and not the quality of concerts and mostly teaching their audience how to appreciate it and how to let others appreciate it - especially in a hall of 6000 people.  It is time for Radio 3 to treat these concerts more seriously and getting it's audience through to the next level of concentrating on what they are hearing and getting them to give it serious appraisal.


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