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.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

BBC Proms 2009: Proms 1 and 5 - Belohlavek/BBC SO Opening Night and Haitink/LSO Mahler 9

Prom 1 BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek. Alice Coote, Ailish Tynan, Stephen Hough, Katia amd Marielle Labeque - soloists. - Royal Albert Hall - July 17. 2009

Opening the Proms this year proved a dullard overall. The BBC SO achieved good textures for 'Fireworks' but what rhythmic animation was in the playing did not occur from within. When the fireworks is in the music(-making), no visual enhancement is longer necessary. The Chabrier proved a charming, sweet, diaphanous treat, in a way sending up a little musical incense with which to consecrate so much that is to come, and capably sung by Ailish Tynan and women.

The piano concerti by Tchaikovsky and Poulenc that followed were performed in such a way to hardly be artistically or culturally distinguishable from one another. The grit where needed was almost altogether missing with the Tchaikovsky, and lush passages from both Stephen Hough and orchestra lacked complete definition. The Poulenc, in being French, almost stopped with there being the name Labeque. It as easily could have been Russian writing for piano as French - the slick, heavy, unyielding way the sister duo approached it Belohlavek was little better in engaging the wit and satirical touch, irony that infuses so much of this music beyond an intermittent flash about several times or so. There was little beyond approaching the bare minimum otherwise.

Elgar's In the South more proactively engaged the imagination and vitality of Belohlavek and his players. Some of the rousing quality of it was understated, but the rhapsodic quality of this music, its shifting colors and cross-rhythms came well to the fore. Belohlavek sufficiently, quite fully engaged shifts in light and atmosphere throughout. The sense of musicians enjoying what they were playing was back; Belohlavek's command of both line and gesture was strong. Alice Coote expertly gave the Brahms Alto Rhapsody an expected feeling of reserve and despondency, with clear, firm line, good diction. Coote made complete the sense of both rattled naiveté on the surface and burning passion tucked well underneath to further be calmed. Belohlavek, mens' chorus and orchestra supported Coote in supple manner, if just a bit shy of drawing out all the colors in this piece possible.

I am not confident that Brahms and Bruckner would have enjoyed such close comparison as the BBC emcee may have led us to believe. Bruckner's Psalm 150, in sounding a little more like Dvorak or Brahms in how the forces at hand performed came across as a little muddled, a little short on internal contrasts between its affirmative surface and dark underpinnings, and featured some unsteady engagement from both soloist (Ailish Tynan) and chorus of its more strenuous passages.

Prom 5 - London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink. Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major - Royal Albert Hall - July 20, 2009.
Formal clarity (of which Haitink spoke in interview as being paramount here) with most flexibly expressive and secure playing than on this occasion was hallmark of the 1969 Mahler Ninth of his and Concertgebouw - still a hallmark in the ever expanding discography for this piece. Expectations naturally ran high for Haitink’s visit this year with the LSO, for the Mahler Ninth. For a considerably slower Andante comodo than previous - not exaggeratedly so - the LSO’s playing sounded on purpose drained of inner vitality and of color, with contrasts between episodes somewhat minimized between, starting out with dragging beat to “Lebewohl’ and so much brooding of the D minor subject (“Leidenschaftlich”).

Sneaking in was a somewhat borrowed tendency to texturally verticalize this music, as such one sometimes associates with Horenstein – not so much true with Haitink before. As different a Mahler conductor as Abbado reminded from Berlin ten years ago of the 1953 Horenstein/Vienna SO Ninth. Here it was more late-career Horenstein. Deryk Barker could not have been more pleased. Trumpet fanfares right before well-limned chinoserie and recapitulation of ‘Lebewohl’ seemed devoid of good underlying rock of pulsation guiding them. Moments of open space, so sublime here in both what followed and other episodes, seemed, partly too with Royal Albert’s acoustics, a little constricted. Haitink’s view of this music remains clear – his good ear for where it is headed, and now more interestingly so at times.

The huge climax twenty minutes in, after buildup of understated defiance - thinking of what people heard at Royal Festival in 1967 with Klemperer – quickly catapulted its way in - then to be followed several minutes later with steep ascent for anguished shift to minor mode submediant and brief reprise of ‘Leidenschaftlich.” Solo work from flute, French horn, and concertmaster was exemplary and beautifully calibrated into the framework of closing pages of the Recaptiulation.

The depressed mood of this Ninth continued into the second movement with soggy attacks on some accents and heavier, though also improved more roughly bucolic approach than innocently so in Amsterdam. Suggestion of defiance has crept in here, but as suggested more than stated as for instance with Klemperer. Contrast between sections was minimized, but Haitink made, halfway through, the third (‘lebewohl’) laendler sag a bit much, making return of first laendler in duet of bassoons answered by acridly spaced woodwinds enter too lively by comparison. Otherwise mastery of structure was intact and spirit of this music well observed. Rondo-Buleske, at sluggish tempo and intermittently compromised ensemble, was weakest of four movements in this. Moments of deftly handled naivete, so in place before in Amsterdam (1969) seemed wonky here. Heavy parody of the ‘academic’ in the rondo-fugue – hallmark of controversially paced Klemperer - plus the aggressive defiance with which that one ends – was minimized here.

Whereas critics have commented before on the 1969 Haitink having given individual characterization of each movement of this, the goal in mind here from the get-go was the Adagio - as bathed in transfigured light - which after a minute to get into it, built up to being fully open and sublime. It was then that there could have been no doubt why any effort to have attended this or special effort to listen in. Pace was just a little slower here than in 1969, with contrast into the Adagissimo final page slightly minimized; Haitink beautifully captured the contrast forty years ago. The Adagio came as somewhat of a release of even unwanted tension, that is to an extent of being alive – the having any desire to continue with, enjoy life – curious because a great love for life infuses so much of what Mahler wrote here.

Haitink opened out beautifully for those quiet passages of the Adagio that let flood the soundscape with the light of transfiguration. Equally so, the darker quieter moments, with solos low in the bassoon part, sounded as withdrawn as they should. Tutti through five minutes before the end sounded forth firm in resolve.

I take less kindly to the Bernstein epicurean approach - but lately the glib, streamlined manner of Gergiev’s LSO Live Mahler cycle has been off-putting. The LSO’s show of mutual affection for Haitink at close of this, with affirmation from throughout Royal Albert Hall was moving. More affecting still would have been less rush to applaud after the last sounds of the Adagio as heard here had faded away.

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