The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rattle/BPO Waldbuhne 2009: off night - ' Idiot's guide to' undercutting Russian warhorses

If one ever looks to the Berlin Philharmonic for playing of true class or distinction, which they have achieved somewhat for Sir Simon Rattle before, it was better to stay away from this year’s Waldbuhne - over any media or in any form.

Two major works filled most of the program – Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As filler, Rattle included several excerpts from the Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky. This portion, which took us from miniature overture just as far as the end of the March, was played a little too coy to be digestible. String crescendi in the overture got worked, and transition to the March was messy; the March carried sufficient casual swagger about itself to almost practically redefine it.

Yefim Bronfman – now ‘pianist-in-residence’ with the Philharmonic - was soloist for the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto. No distinctive shaping happened during opening lines of the first movement. Bronfman then worked Berlin cellos with meaninglessly highlighted upbeats while he otherwise coasted through mostly steady stream of sixteenths to accompany them. Phrasing to follow also sounded indecisive. Rattle’s bloating of transition to the second theme, with hints of Fauntleroy, did not help. For expressivity from Bronfman, one got a measly generic massage-the-phrase treatment this music certainly better does without. After a good ride over larger crest to the line, all was tweed, ‘take-me-to-Palm-Court’ to close exposition to the first movement.

For the development section, orchestral ensemble deteriorated further and Bronfman’s playing, enough to mistake him for Eugene Istomin attempting this piece – I myself grateful to never have heard that - became increasingly choppy and clipped. For enveloping purposes - returning center of gravity to proceedings - before the cadenza began, Rattle engaged the Berlin Phil in some truly inordinate heavy breathing. Bronfman then, though hitting most of the notes, proceeded to pulverize much of the more difficult version of the first movement cadenza. Smearing of figuration and back-phrasing of what also followed was hardly distinctive.

Not far into the intermezzo, Rattle went for a huge dip in shaping the line, followed by Bronfman making a smear of starting his first entrance, ascending through his cocktail lounge jazz-improv assessment of cadence in D-Flat Major. No reference to Rattle’s Stravinsky coming up, but playing by Berlin winds and ‘street’ reprise of first movement theme were alone in being effective until end of this movement - Bronfman getting cluttered toward end of final brief cadenza he had started well.

Hardly anything happened during the finale, played unabridged, inconsistent with what had preceded it, except that choice of tempo, in being more forward moving, improved on earlier. Berlin PO violins on lyrical subjects sounded hardly distinguishable from those for instance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; by this point, Berlin, like Bronfman, had started to smear significant amount of passage-work. Extended episode in E-Flat Major ranged from heavily clipped to Ketelbey coy – Rachmaninoff as ‘picnic party’ for much of this. Combat phrasing, truffle hunting of opening to reprise of A section, smear to follow, then phoning in of reprise of the second theme did not assist matters. Lower strings on segue into start of the coda made ‘Julien’s concert’ (as brass get described therein) out of it, then the brass on upbeats; Rattle apoplectically veered between clipping and bloating the music out of shape – just in part to match Bronfman.

Matters improved little for Rite of Spring; Rattle is more responsible on his old EMI disc of this. Holding opening note on upper-register bassoon for ten seconds just helps make it contest between orchestral principals the world over as to who can hold it the longest.

A ‘street’ Rite of Spring followed this, for much of it, as coming off the upper west side. With Leonard Bernstein, it seems that we have been here before - as recently found slavishly imitated by Paavo Jarvi to no convincing effect with Cincinnati. This is Berlin here however. I thought (and still do) that both the Karajan recordings of this music were mediocre, but not in terms of at least technical ability of Berlin to play this music well. Hip swagger of so much of Stravinsky’s rhythms here went well over the top, through Rattle’s take on how a slow hoochie-goo of ‘Glorification de l’elue should go.

Some address of current local vernacular tendencies, mere suggestion thereof, can be apropos in Rite of Spring, but one must be far more mindful than this example and two other listed above, not to turn Rite into caricature. Thierry Fischer and BBC Nat’l of Wales very deftly, concisely pointed references in Rite to vernacular even in French internationalized society of the time right after Rite was written. Fischer thus accomplished making numerous very interesting interpretive points.

Struggle here to keep so much a jungle of woodwind interaction together during Introduction to Part One was palpable. Placement of isolated two measures of trill in the violins went for naught. Underlining of woodwinds during ‘Augurs of Young Girls’ was too self-conscious by half - compromising pulsation throughout this section. Jeu de rapt’ then got compromised by scherzo pointing of the winds, some voltage from timpani interjections showing up just how sanitized all of Rattle’s rhythms had already become, with violins note-spinning outflow in sextuplets from everything preceding them.

‘Rondes de printemps’, after heavily gilded intro to it, started adequately, for one section, with accenting correct, except for heavily gilding, enveloping the two note sff brass intrusions that made nonsense of those. For the faster coda to ‘Spring Rounds’, Rattle’s rhythms turned loose to point of being anywhere from gently Africanized to flitting by. ‘Games of Rival Tribes’ and ‘Dance of the Earth’, the latter barely starting off together, proceeded casually, as down Harlem way. In-between was Procession of the Sage, in which theme in lower brass got a bit covered by repeated note (A-flats) in a pair of bassoons – a picture of the Sage dilly-dallying about while all the rest marched by.

A heavily gilded Introduction started off Part 2 on the wrong foot, with much gas and bloat of repeated consequent to the opening phrase. What in the meal offerings had given the tribe so much indigestion? Flutes, with their gilded dovetailing to everything they were playing, turned all positively Technicolor. A four note chant within space of a whole tone was given gentle swivel to its step. Balances between leading and supporting voices several places before ‘Glorification’ were altered for seemingly hardly more purpose than to notice Rattle’s personal stamp on proceedings. Segue to ‘Glorfication’ got italicized - with ‘Evocation of Ancestors’ extendomh the hitch that had just infused ‘Glorification.’ Much jazz improv ensued through ‘Ritual Action’, with just adequate street pulsation to t climax of this section – right before bass clarinet riff into ‘Danse sacrale.’

Pointed by farts in the tuba at its start, ‘Danse sacrale’ coasted casually along, a cross between gas-bloated phlegmatic and ‘upper west side.’ Allowing violins to be heard too clearly above all else going on and especially out-of-the-way spotlighting of ascending tuba through thicket of busy texture turned all practically Mehta-esque. Sudden speed-up before reprise of Intro to ‘Danse sacrale’ was practically entrance of Tinker-bell to change screen on Wonderful World of Disney. Was it Mickey Mouse or Goofy then to meet Sir Simon in the foyer or green room? Playing Nutcracker Pas de deux as encore to Rite deserves no comment.

Brahms (a somewhat retiring Third) and Shostakovich at the Proms last summer made fine showcase of what Rattle and Berlin are capable, but their Messiaen Turangalila during the same week showed up where Rattle can come up short, for lack of being attentive to important issues while taking on twentieth century music.

While I must cut things short here in order to make my Michael Jackson grief support counseling session on time, I leave the house only able to think back as far as this Rite of Spring. Perhaps there has been no more fitting tribute, hardly more innocuous, to mark ahead of time occasion of the passing of who gave even Berlners the moonwalk.

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