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, August 8, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 10 and 15: Markl/Orch Nat'l de Lyon, Belohlavek/BBC SO

Prom 10. Orchestre National de Lyon, Jun Markl. Mayumi Miyata (sho), Akiko Suwanai. Royal Albert Hall. July 24, 2009.

Music of combination to admixture of Japanese, French, Spanish, and other accessory influences dominated the visit by the Orch. Nat’l de Lyon and Jun Markl.

‘Ceremonial – An Autumn Ode’ (Takemitsu).opened with extended solo for sho, which makes in high sonorities melodic patterns and harmonies out of five steps of the A Major scale. Winds, perhaps placed offstage, played imitation-sho descant to the rest of the orchestra elaborating on pitch patterns of the sho and extending them out to wider overtones. Such made space for the violins to expand melodic line to comment rhapsodically on what has transpired. High pitched clarinet and off-pitch-ended French horn glassandi deftly interacted preceding brief coda - paraphrase of what had been introduction to the ode on solo sho.

Markl approached Debussy (-Caplet)’s “Pagodes” with supple grace and intimate emotional depth - with most flexible, colored, nuanced balancing of different choirs of the orchestra. Woodwinds hieratically and animatedly commented upon solemn pentatonic chorale in the brass beneath, with beautiful placement assured for all.

Markl framed opening the Prelude a la nuit of Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole well by eschewing exaggeration of its dynamics. Shimmer of tremoli from the violins offset dark lament from octave unison duet of clarinets; the music then seemed to float, leading into moment of great stillness anchoring expression of sultry passion inflaming an otherwise still Spanish night. Subtle insinuation woven through the regular rhythms of the Malaguena thus continued to be the order of the day – incisive muted trumpet offsetting bedrock of steady ostinato from lower winds and color enhancement, support from the horns. Markl deftly traced long very soft violins’ descent of octaves wafting over resumption of ostinato following brief reprise of the prelude. Suitably lachrymose English horn, then low register clarinet led in the Habanera, followed by consequents of dotted rhythms sharply etched from separated first stands and then capriciously by winds. Lightly textured, well animated tracing of the festive atmosphere for ‘Feria’ was effective. Markl let final reminder of Prelude a la nuit waft in telepathically, as he also so well pointed the rapid chordal muted glissandi in violins to embellish closing phrases to the middle section - then two minutes later bringing all to an exuberant conclusion.

Preceding Akiko Suwanai’s fine virtuoso display for Carmen Fantasy then technically adept strong conservatory style playing of Ravel’s Tzigane, with too expected usual twists and turns was what truly highlighted Part 2 of this prom – the brief rhapsody ‘Green’ by Takemitsu. Birdsong and subtle percussion effects lightly embellished an elaborate tapestry of combined dialogue, antiphony of chorale mostly in the strings, descant arabesque hinting of Messiaen in the woodwinds - ostinati of sextuplets also from the winds remindful of Debussy’s ‘Jeux.’ Melisma of antiphonal brass and string choirs followed; all eventually came to a peaceful close with levitating calm ascent in strings subtly emanating from extensive spelling out of the chorale with which brass opened this.

Hosokawa’s Cloud and Light called upon strings and brass to produce microtonal adjustments to their spellings to imitate the sho in this very deeply meditative work. All of it culminated for a moment in a storm addressed as so remote or distant here as though something equally likely to have been in part to depict or indicate a disturbance of the mind, subconscious - and all as though a natural event. It all got foretold so well by somber underpinnings and menace from double basses, breaking in what is otherwise so often very still or really instead illusion thereof. Tritone harmonics tremoli up and down violin fingerboards just as ephemerally seemed to depict sheets of rain. Here was on one level a tone poem exploring the imitation of sonorities between playing of the sho and writing for the orchestral parts - plus orchestral commentary on what the sho plays as well. On a deeper level was somewhat a floating of the mind, as not to be touched, enslaved longer by any lingering of desire or resultant feeling of loss. Hosokawa had an adept seer on the podium in Markl and authoritative playing of the sho - plus diligent care of the sensitive instrument - from Mayumi Myata.

As though its complete impetus had been to work hard to free music from the moorings of Western diatonic processes came Debussy’s La Mer in an interpretation by Markl assuredly malcontent to stop at conventionally depicting atmosphere. Numerous solo lines throughout entered in so supple as though all writing could have been improvised on the spot - before any cognizant thought had arisen. Such was to great extent the illusion that Markl built into Debussy’s great elaboration of different states, moods, and processes of the sea during an extensive day at it. Markl’s uncanny sense of form was pervasive, in that for one he observed it in full, but not as allowing this music to further be subjugated by tradition-bound illusion as to or of how to proceed through it all. Practically all cliché with La Mer was eschewed, even banned, to most welcome effect.

Opening of the first movement was highly meditative – in mode of slow respiration in and out. Gentle arabesque solo on flute was more expressive for fully allowing in, accommodating insinuating woodwind lines right underneath than usual. Transition into intimation of folk melody and then middle section sea shanty all occurred as though having organically developed out of what had preceded it. Undulations in alternating whole tones and octaves in the strings above cadential phrases to the sea shanty for once sounded easy. Fully demarcated in character, they assisted instead fluid transition into a beautifully prepared processional coda – with hieratically placed (instead of overstated) timpani - to the first movement.

Arabesque of rapidly descending chords in the flutes sounded completely weightless at start of ‘Jeux des vagues.’ Winds underpinning broader melodic line in the strings just past its first two pages plaintively intimated most naturally the cries of gulls. Harp glissandi and descending sequence of trills in flutes was very supple. Markl succinctly observed separations between firsts, seconds, violas in the strings while never losing natural flow to the most windswept passage (Anime) of this movement. Lower strings, as easily as it could have been Sibelius, made graphic in rumbling tremolo a gust of cold air over the water – one more among so many times any premeditation of gesture in the playing on purpose got completely obscured.

Stretto entrances in ‘Dialogue’ for lower strings, did not get pushed, not calculatedly firm and incisive as much as happening by sheer force or necessity - as though emerging exhaled from leagues beneath the surface. It was not enough for these players to stop at getting the rhythms in play absolutely accurate as they did, but making revelatory in with so supple a hand so much that freely, tacitly lies beneath. Distant muted trumpet, for being able to emerge from such a sound world, eschewed having to force his repeated line to greater level of expressivity with all of that. Everything Markl did thereafter conjured supple poetry out of all the rest.

With no loss of character, agitation built up in the strings toward more just suggesting a raging storm to be depicted – storm as much distortion to a cogently meditative state of mind as it was real, as though to remind us of way in which Hosokawa conceived his own in Cloud and Light. Bird cries, thanks to not having to run across an even halfway excessively steep arch into the Storm, were clearly audible in places where they often get covered up or more likely become confused on how to enter right and at what volume, but not so here. Low string tremoli effortlessly rolled off pensive chorale in the brass. Oboe call after long pause from afar did indeed, with beautiful placement, help form a halo of receding light over open water. Animation from within Markl’s Lyon forces remained vigorous all the way out from there, and without having had to tense up anything for passing effect. A world that only merely can be suggested opened up so cumulatively at this Prom – ‘fusion prom’ out of the whole lot of them this year.

Heard earlier this year with better string department resources than Markl’s band in Lyon was a Daniele Gatti conducted La Mer, as shallow, superficial musically and rhetorically - sloppy rhythmically - as could have been possible. Clear from this outing who it is better qualified to have taken over Orchestre National de France, plus who as well could have secured a much better ‘Sacre du printemps’ from them too.

Prom 15. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek. Jaroslava Pechocova, Vaclav Macha. Royal Albert Hall. July 27, 2009.

Less memorable was Prom 15, though with fine programming of all a Slavic tint to it. Jiri Belohlavek opened with a lumpy, workaday rendition of Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture - joyous occasion of playing this only nearly having become airborne a few times - held back overall by tentative playing from tense, pushed BBC SO strings.

It is hard, if you know it, even if not having listened to it for a while, to get all of the classic RSO Berlin/Fricsay of Bartok’s Dance Suite out of one’s ear, if/when hearing someone else do it. Belohlavek hardly made that any exception here. He engaged rhythms in the first two movements phlegmatically, underlining them excessively - making several of them clot in places. His wind principals, in spite of all this, revealed good rhythmic sense, especially where English horn, then tuba and bassoon picked up on dance rhythms or variants thereof during the first dance. Belohlavek undercut both the simplicity and savagery of the second dance (Allegro molto). Lack of confidence in location of beat from in front of orchestra seemed an issue during the Allegro vivace; Belohlavek underlined phrasing and pummeled stretti of open intervals to attempt making compensation for this lapse. Once, only while into lighter textures toward the end of it, did matters improve.

The ‘Molto tranquillo’ (fourth movement) proceeded with weak pulsation, thus somewhat note-by-note, with inflection of contrast between repeats, variants of chant in the woodwinds understated. Grace notes in form of triplets sounded clipped, for Belohlavek looking at it all too foursquare, though perhaps not yet clipping anything. If one in fact did not have Fricsay in one’s ear, then this was probably all quite acceptable. Fricsay’s even hints at foreboding of an insurrection ready to break out, whereas Belohlavek missed any suggestion thereof. Brass and wind tuning and secure rhythmic organization were both in doubt during what lapsed quickly into being an episodic finale ultimately falling flat, excusing fine work from the BBC principal violist in reprise of the Allegro vivace.

The best playing of the evening came with the Concerto for Two Pianos by Bohuslav Martinu, a work still slightly overshadowed by the Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani. Both Belohlavek and especially his soloists - colleagues for a long time as Ivan Moravec protégés playing together here for the first time - characterized the overt and even at times comical brilliance of this composition well. Pechocova and Macha delineated the brilliant oodles of toccata figuration with spiky incisiveness, but also had and revealed the reach to rhapsodically cascade the ‘quasi fantasia’ swaths of arpeggi that open the central slow movement and resume therein with free grandeur, depth, and simplicity. Grandiose arpeggi during development section of the first movement overwhelmed a bit the simplicity of the chorale infused line that insightfully frames them. Pechocova and Macha found the simplicity though, complemented by especially BBC SO winds, to etch more simply scored chorale passages – having one’s mind wander over to Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto from two years later - with fine introspection.

All participants did not but briefly let the fact as Martinu also had not that this is music written during very dark times occlude the overall light, mirthful spirit of this piece. Syncopation and burlesque style writing for the soloists for especially the first several minutes of the brilliant finale recalled almost practically intentional reminder of Poulenc’s Double Concerto at the start of the first movement. Belohlavek enhanced all well, but sounded most engaged with bringing out as frame to everything the extended tonality aspects of Martinu’s writing. Winds and brass most effectively helped him achieve this.

The BBC principal flautist – his opening salvos spot-on in rhythm, melodic shape, spirit - gave the lie to there being a very lively, engaging rendition of the Petrushka ballet about to ensue. Instead a tame rendering of the Petrushka Suite (version of the ballet that even Fricsay misguidedly recorded – not knowing how little time he had left) filled the second half of this prom. That there was something considerably different than Fricsay or the complete Ancerl in store - latter of which this gave off strong hints at first - became quickly evident. We now find ourselves missing a vital, really haunting four or five minutes worth of the complete survey of Stravinsky ballets the BBC Proms has promised us this summer.

Flute section ensemble in accompaniment to lower winds organ grinder tune was noticeably less than sufficiently accurate for this. Stretto right before the first showman’s episode became too thick - rhythms and shaping of dark intro to it and of flute melody therein vague and mildly nuanced out of shape respectively. The Russian dance, getting pulsation to its rhythms right during lighter moments was good overall, except for some rhythmic stiffness that crept in. Contrast in character, between that of individual puppets in the second tableau became rushed, clipped, undercut. Out with it went menacing, sufficiently bitter depiction of Petrushka’s plight and room he inhabits – albeit with trumpets mostly incisive on his imprecations thereof.

The third tableau (Moor’s room) started off appropriately droll, with mostly good accenting from especially fine lower woodwinds; the ballerina dance came off too kinetic instead of light. Belohlavek marked the beat too much for the waltz with his accompanying bassoon, messing up ensemble with his other two principals therein. Depiction of the Moor stumbling, dodging about just underneath was close to right – certainly better than one youthful American I caught the other day on youtube with Rotterdam getting the waltz heavier than a more slick than usual Moor underneath. Petrushka’s entrance lost the ferocity with which it started, once Belohlavek became again too self-conscious about what beat patterns he might have to choose from.

Sense of clashing activity and chaotic milling about amongst the Shrovetide fair crowd was calibrated, timed very well until Belohlavek began to streamline depiction of diminishing crowd and Nursemaids’ dance - too rushed to get the heavy gait, grace-note inflected accents in his violins right. He then undercut the heavy sonorities with which Stravinsky underpins both this passage and contrasting lighter step to follow. BBC clarinet principal led the peasant’s dance with the bear very effectively, before Belohlavek streamlined what followed and then rushed through a Coachman’s dance, further helping catapult what Stravinsky wrote or revised to a too early conclusion.

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