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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 16 and 20: Nelsons/CBSO and Nezet-Seguin/SCO

Prom 16. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons. Stephen Hough. Royal Albert Hall - July 28, 2009.

The Proms debut of young Andris Nelsons with the CBSO was much anticipated, given the charisma and seemingly dependable musicality of their new chief. His concert opened with what was most musically insightful of the evening – Orion Over Farne by John Casken (1984; rev. 1986). It combines in its imagery elements of narrative - Greek myth of Orion – to combine abstractly with view of the Farne islands off Northumberland coast, including depiction of constellation one can see at night certain times of year.

The music begins in jaggedly majestic fashion, along lines one might expect of French overture. Lines of melisma extend out, sometimes underpinning augmentation of such figuration into broadened lyricism in the violins, sometimes getting extended over to solo woodwinds. Repeated note tremolo, trills, and often five-note scale-wise patterns (also getting extended into stretches of octave or so) going up tritone instead of perfect fifth – also produce (extended) harmonic underpinnings and mark overtones in frequently dense writing. Snatches of gigue, possibly representing street music will sometimes but just fleetingly frame an extended event, passage, or long arch of lyrical outpouring. Such anchoring, framing device one finds in the music of Lutoslawski. Microtonal writing, especially in the strings shows up - suggesting where such could lead - but suggestion of there being aleatoric elements in play, even controlled ones just rests subtly at that. Such element is more essential to impetus and construction in Lutoslawski.

The piece, following no discernible narrative, is in four movements – relatively fast, slow, scherzo, and slow finale. Especially in the scherzo, ostinati develop in high winds, even a few strings, light percussion that seemed - amidst such (spirit of) yearning and striving that infuses so much of the entire piece - to represent what glitter, brilliant light might decorate the sky on a clear night off the Northumberland coast. Much toccata activity throughout different branches of the orchestra interactively livens up a despondent, even at times gloomy atmosphere to rub off on one while listening to this. This holds true until a short ways into the finale. Impression of wide open spaces, typical of Northumberland apparently, comes off here - often put as abstract.

Individual use of percussion writing, writing for woodwinds and brass too especially was clearly evident, along with recapitulatory element of reprise of the ‘french overture’ opening to the work during the scherzo. Such reprise provides a clear moment of underlining what formal elements of this music are perceptible. Nelsons’ control of his forces seemed exemplary - with his grasp of the meditative quality of particularly the slow finale – long string lines offset by mercurial descant and effects. Barcarolle motion through lower registers over span of nearly two octaves open spaced E Major chord combined with scale-wise extension of B Major above suggested deep overtones and gave moment or two in the fourth movement a much coveted feel of stability. More open engagement of colors here along with tighter formal sense might be welcome; effort put forth here still was good. Chant-like lines in six, broken up into melodic dyads in the second movement suggested Messiaen. Harmonic and melodic implications playing off each other antiphonally, first just among woodwinds, again suggested as much.

The opening of the 1910 score of Stravinsky’s Firebird, complete, sounded forth mysteriously, but one had to wonder about a certain want of tonal depth in CBSO double basses. Such began a certainly competent, well organized, polished rendition of the complete score, but seemingly unwilling to take one any further into it than that. Nelsons frequently has a fine ear for color, but often little to indicate how he might understand where some of it should lead. As to freely paraphrase a BBC emcee - such held true while Nelsons would beatifically look out over his orchestra with expressions of ‘voiced delight’ at what he'd hear come back.

Tempos were not conspicuously slow, but the internal life of it all was undercut by priority being given to color over rhythm. Where however was the vitality, the sense of charting new horizons, the danger, the risk-taking, the spark, the fire? Where at times were the sharp corners, the wit? Firebird does not owe 1980’s American film scores any debt. One gets the color, already there more than sufficiently in the scoring of this, even the identity or earmark of what ensemble is playing this from Stravinsky’s rhythms. Nelsons tended to prefer window-dressing, romanticized underlining, dovetailing its many corners instead. Better for Nelsons seemed to be what Stravinsky presumably had picked up from Rimsky-Korsakov, but in glib, clean, modern fashion. So much pointing of color here thus did not lead anywhere specific. Good color, a moderately well engaged orchestra, combustion for something to happen was clearly there, but little to set it off.

The tempo relationship between Adagio and Allegretto during ‘Suppplications’, for example, got minimized. With return of the Adagio, Nelsons tried to provide shape by inserting more breaks into the line, but such, subtle as they may have been, failed to emerge from within. With ominous sounding Katschei related motif on bassoon, Nelsons then went about sanitizing interesting wind concertati occurring above, as for them not to detract attention by their real peculiarity. So much writing since has developed out of such peculiarity, but no matter. Pacing of the Firebird Dance earlier was good, but with so much tweaking and nuance of it as to interrupt its own inherent animation.

With fine contributions from CBSO woodwinds, animation and coloristic effect was supplied aplenty for ‘Games with the Golden Apples’, but again hardly from within. The unabashedly Rimsky-Mozartean Round Dance deftly achieved lovely shape, but Daybreak appeared on the scene phlegmatically and with so much aimless fuss. After excessive slowdown into trotting out Katschei onto the scene himself, dialogue between prince and wizard was very suitably incisive, indicating so much of what we had already missed too often; the wizard’s crankiness in (over-the-top?) brass to the princesses interceding on behalf of handsome prince emerged fully in character. With loose to flaccid rhythm though, instead good preparation for infernal dance to follow, Katschei’s retinue, minions all wimped out on us. Ensuing battle seemed finished before it started.

Predictably, the infernal dance, as though everyone caught a little off guard, tamely, efficietnly coasted through with deft touch added here and there. Principal bassoon limned his lines for the Berceuse very nicely, but syrupy garden variety rubato from CBSO strings verged on practically Straussian. How Nelsons had Katschei keel over toward the end, was it to prove that Katschei indeed had seen better days? General rejoicing then began apologetically – perhaps we had been a tad hard on him all this time – with transition into wedding song (marked in five as in Rimsky-Korsakov operas) weak – leading eventually to soggy release at end of the long held final B Major chord.

Stephen Hough, in playing the Tchaikovsky concerti, seems to miss something. The tonal palette, variety of touch, and even size of tone he produces all come across as narrow for this music. He at least has most of the notes under his fingers, and the grace to shape lyrical pages well. There are qualities however, awkward though the writing is that distinguish Tchaikovsky’s writing for piano from that of Rachmaninov. Those did not come across here.

Nelsons proved little help on the Second Concerto, with somewhat punched out chords and chopped up line for majestic first theme. Even while sunny, there is some sense of imperial grandeur with which this piece carries itself. Strings were especially flat-line on lyrical ‘L’istesso tempo’ sections; the violins’ line sagged at the opening of the second theme. Hough repeated the rhapsodic ‘L’istesso tempo’ subject during his cadenza in way resembling too much music of the salon. Rubato, along with imperial grandeur less than socially correct these days, got ignored as option for bringing meaningful or defining shape to what then becomes only work-a-day - the technically most demanding passages of the first movement.

The second movement, with fine solo contributions across the board, was played absolutely complete, but including some editing from Hough with which it is hard to find sympathy. Replacing the violin and cello solos on the main theme to open the Recapitulation - preceding short cadenza for Mr. Hough but following theirs - entirely with piano playing this same passage instead did not turn out to be much of any idea. In attempting to revise, improve upon Tchaikovsky, having piano trio soloists trade off melodic line for instance in pairs might have worked better – or having left well enough alone. Rondo finale commenced earthbound; Hough invested pleasing room and space with light touch to how it carried on. Punching of chords from podium into coda to the finale was vulgar. Nelsons, imposing lightness as he did, working around rapid passagework from Hough, managed to turn the rondo into jaunty ‘Liberace’ for a less than dignified close to it all.

Prom 20. Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Karen Cargill, Andrew Staples, Brindley Sherratt, Nichlolas Angelich, soloists. Royal Albert Hall - July 31, 2009.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin spoke of potential pitfalls but the need to take risks, doing Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for what became his Proms debut – with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Stravinsky was quoted as calling this ballet an epiphany through which the whole of his ‘late works’ or emerging neo-classical style became possible. Had he thought of the charming melodic ideas and patterns, rhythms, and general aura or mood instead as dreary, measured, and simply tired as it all sounded here – certainly more than he himself perceived Rake’s Progress toward the end of the thirty-plus years that started with Pulcinella - he may have reduced those years by three-fourths and then moved on to serialism. According to such reasoning, Heinz Holliger, thinking back five years to one brief chat backstage I had with him, might have even found it desirable to have Nezet-Seguin around eighty years ago.

‘What risks?’ almost immediately came to mind once streamlined cruise through overture to the ballet, with soggy attack, was under way. A sagging, inadequately tuned oboe began the serenata, sung with spread tone by tenor Andrew Staples. Accompaniment was clunky, muddy, with Staples unable to keep line alive through cadences. Opening of Scherzino was phlegmatic - not to allow noticeable contrast in articulation with retiring G Minor cadential phrases in solo strings. Accelerated sections remained fixed to the bar-line and following Andantino was limpid, but shapeless. Allegro right before the mezzo’s first aria became at refrains so generically overstated as to get easily mistaken for Copland. Karen Cargill, staidly accompanied, though fruity around the break, sang and phrased her aria attractively.

Even with careful marking of every downbeat - stunting cumulative growth through ‘Allegro assai’ right afterwards - ensemble still turned muddy. Nezet-Seguin sounded still trying to organize what was in front of him while conducting it. Brindley Sherratt lacked control of pitch at the top of the staff in his first solo and continued wobbly from there on out. Trio of all three voices all sounded as though pressing request for ex-lax on hand. Some enthusiasm for having learned this music became evident during a pushed, scratchy Tarantella, but too little, too late. Soggy, bar-fixated pacing resumed through Gavotte with variations and minuet with French horn – self-parody to as ‘dying cow’ leading things for the latter. Stretto finale to the ballet turned into a racket, but as emerging from a joyless, badly academic, militaristically strict shouting match of trio that preceded it. Even Heinz Holliger would have hoped for better than this.

Following clunky downward trudge toward agitated three measures of intro, Nicholas Angelich and Nezet-Seguin gave a demonstration of how it might be possible to break the first theme of the Schumann piano concerto into perhaps as many as four or five sections at each serving of it. Nezet-Seguin appeared to be giving the impetus. Given this was a chamber orchestra taking such on so heavily, one could have wondered what things might have been like if had been full Philharmonia on stage instead. Angelich, when given rolling octaves – doing so in ‘Concert Fantasy’ mode - seemed interested in telling us that perhaps there is much in how Tchaikovsky (so awkwardly) wrote for the instrument in how Schumann did already in his one concerto. Stephen Hough can breathe a little easier now. Co-ordination of Nezet-Seguin’s strict accenting of the ritornello leading into the Development proved awkward; even clumsier was extended reprise during Development of the dotted rhythms from the Introduction, followed - so idiomatic - by more ‘Russian’ octave playing from Angelich. While left more on his own and given more lyrical material, Angelich lightened up and interacted well with sensitive principal clarinetist of the SCO. Expected bulges, surges, bumps, back-phrasings and what goes with the territory resumed in the Recapitulation, during which Nezet-Seguin made Schumann’s excitable reach into the supertonic working toward its second half– certainly excitable here – sound silly.

Matters did not much improve again until a fortunately nearly gracefully enough played intermezzo, yet with some phrase endings threatening to distend just as they had during the first movement. Transition to the rondo was effective, but runs by violins making it right into its first theme got slurped. Slavic values again quickly made themselves conspicuous. Angelich added back-phrased endings and teletype obbligato to between soft-shoe and Mexican waltz of a second subject, but found fluent touch through extensive arpeggi that followed, numerous times with lyrical extensions spinning off of them quite deftly. Nezet-Seguin, acknowledging Schumann’s lighter scoring, seemed finally for most of what remained to catch on.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony closed the program. Nezet-Seguin got caught up a little in the four note arch that makes up much of the Introduction that somehow failed to build very well upon its own repetition into sequence that occurs. Each subphrase thus again had its own story, its own plot, but overall one quickly lost one’s own way, listening to this. After overdoing a repeated note idea in the brass, he enveloped the ‘Dresden amen’ in the strings just a little much. We are here not quite to Parsifal already. Measured phrasing prevailed in Allegro that immediately followed, making connecting line tenuous. Lighter touch on the second theme was good, but crude accenting morbidly broke following development section into much disconnected tissue.

Nezet-Seguin benefited by the lighter scoring in the Recapitlulation (until his free-wheeling handling of the Coda) and Scherzo - with accenting in the latter sliding into being clipped, ham-fisted. Pacing for the Andante intermezzo was slow, but with lovely sound and phrasing from SCO violins. Not until into the finale did serious trouble re-emerge - with accenting weighted very heavily and close to level of self-parody wrongly as well. Clipped ending notes on the strongly accented second subject almost thus became inaudible. Nezet-Seguin then gave impression of more security with what faced him, what ensued, that is until ragged string tone and ensemble over brass portentously sounding ‘A Mighty Fortress’ forth one last time.

There is no question, including in hearing Nezet-Seguin speak about music, the enthusiasm and grasp of even some musicality, but this is very evidently a career being pushed way too far, too fast for his own good - and that for the rest of us.

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