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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 24 and 25: Beethoven/Berlioz between Malkki/BBC SO and T Fischer/BBC NOW

Prom 24. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Malkki. Jorg Schneider, Simon Preston, soloists (Berlioz). Royal Albert Hall. August 2, 2009.

Mere combinations of orchestral choirs, how they interact too with solo instruments – as affected by frequent changes in pacing – was partly impetus behind Ben Foskett’s From Trumpet that opened Susanna Malkki’s one Proms visit this summer. Triad intervals starting with a mid-register A, spanning a minor ninth, build to overlap between E-Flat major chord and dominant seventh of D Minor and fill out circular motion through which woodwinds proceed very slowly. Strings then break in with formations of sevenths and ninths, with more frequent but at first still light pointing of accents from the percussion. Muted brass alternate with winds in spinning out closer intervals and thus help to step up the pace with sharper, more frequent dissonances. Violins then play simple ostinato between G-sharp and F-sharp, to buttress overt brief toccata of loud percussion.

A high register trumpet trio fanfare five minutes in marks a signpost, over strings pulsating over whole tone of C and D, underpinned by pounding timpani. Oboe forms a lyrical descant leading into by now a dissonant C Major chord in high winds - as though starting an episode of ‘night music’; the chord then easily separates itself out; then all momentarily is at rest, with a wide open spaced chord one semitone off melodically traced in lower registers. Past a cumulatively dense climax, Foskett settles for remainder of this fourteen minute piece becoming an exercise in chant-based minimalism, suggesting his having run out of ideas early.

Spiritual or religious fervor, enthusiasm was apparently not the principal calling card for Malkki in taking on Hector Berlioz’s Te Deum. Here nevertheless was a performance of sufficient scale and grandeur to be memorable. The forthright clarity and bright vigor with which sopranos began their lines in “Te Deum” (first movement) augured much of what would follow here, but not to an extent to betray irreverence, even with things getting placed slightly far forward. Malkki, within fine grasp of line and overall conception, found suitable introspection for “Omnis terra” and also then for uninterrupted transition to “Tibi omnes” (second movement). The lines of “Sanctus” building each to a straightforwardly imposing “Pleni sunt coeli” let off in lovely underpinning by strings a hint of the poetic landscape for Faust that starts “Damnation” - choral lines further lit here by gently downward arpeggio cascades by quartet of flutes. Nuance for Berlioz’s dark shading of otherwise an overtly bright supertonic of C-sharp major (while in key of B Major) in the second verse of “Tibi omnes” was insightful as well - with further nuance provided by having string pizzicati antiphonally answer flutes hovering about.

Supple organ arioso and entrance by sopranos over simple woodwind textures helped lend pleasing simplicity to the notion of the prayer, “Dignare” - of true penance bringing some form of spiritual replenishment or refreshment. In approach to “Miserere’s” in the text, Malkki underlined the dark color of modulation to E Major as Neapolitan to E-Flat Minor, but as harmonic weight also suffused with light in completing full modulation to C-Sharp Minor. Without sounding as unified in purpose as a well-seasoned Colin Davis on disc, reassuring balm was found in the cadential response that then occurs in A Major for a movement of classical construction having begun in D. There is hardly any movement in French or any choral music more expressive than this one; hardly anything in its way of being sublime got missed here.

“Christe, rex gloriae started off bright, but lightly textured in its fervor - as to keenly save a more satisfactorily complete enthusiasm over subject matter and lines of text for last. The quasi-Mozartean cadential preparation for reprising of its opening was potent too.

Jorg Schneider, tenor for “Te ergo quaesumus”, so musically capitalized upon his resources that without resorting to falsetto, crooning or anything weak, made something most pliable, flexibly expressive of his assignment including therein what lies near, around the top of the staff. Any hint of trouble around the break could have gone completely unnoticed. He made the most in the right way of chromatic turns in the exposed, at times long-breathed melodic lines given him. As suffused with light as identifiable perhaps with Wagner’s swan knight was the overall approach to the soloist’s final stanza starting with “Speravimus” over hushed, subdued legato choral response. One should not read into the above promotion of Schneider to take on Lohengrin (as of yet). With voice and musicality as pleasing as his, one looks forward to his Mozart, lyric French, bel canto - and lieder as well - before long.

“Judex crederis”, with its imposing grandeur and working out of thoroughly in-depth involvement of enharmonic relationships, proved no challenge for Malkki. She, however, could have been cited for tendency to underline brass or trombones’s frequent doubling of leading choral line, and perhaps being mildly too direct with accenting it as well. The vigor and tremendous weight of such music, of such a conception as this finale is certainly nothing to be denied and it most certainly was not here. It is something though that with time will grow to eventually speak more eloquently with more subtle command of it in the future. In Malkki’s best interest, it should be said too however that the overall sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is slightly dry for Berlioz - as such some liability in getting across all that this music must convey. As understated as some qualities were about this performance of Te Deum, there was very little – with very fine contribution of Simon Preston at the organ and of extensive choral forces here – with which one could go away feeling unfulfilled by hearing this.

Nothing could have prepared better for the Berlioz than what proved perhaps the most surprising performance of the evening, that of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, for which the emcee who announced it, unsolicited, apologized. Pardon that it is indeed an equally important work as the two admittedly more imposing symphonies that bookend it; it certainly is too the most subtle and in a way most inward looking of any of them. If anyone did not need convincing I am right, it was Malkki. It ranks along with the Eroica as one of my two favorites among the nine.

A less than entirely full contingent of forces were used for this Beethoven Fourth, but little in the way of being dry or austere in doing so. An especially fine ear for all subtle harmonic change in the introduction, color therein, was clearly evident. It was comprehensively such, interpreted so well, it could have been written to prepare the way for “Tibi omnes” or “Dignare” from the work to follow here. With appropriate space allotted sinuous lines in mostly a re-transition of a Development section, the bracing vigor for the body of the first movement was also undeniable. Malkki also made vigorous play of light staccato offbeat half notes for closing theme to Exposition and Recapitulation without giving in to or leaving one the impression she was clipping these - certainly not to excess, as for instance might be expected of an Osmo Vanska or Paavo Jarvi. Malkki, with apparently a more thoroughly intellectual (and heartfelt) grasp of this music, is knowing enough to eschew the excesses of playing Beethoven ‘period’, whereas others do not. It was only the opening of the Scherzo here that might have pointed accents slightly too brusque, but the harmonic and sinuously drawn follow through with melodic lines therein - fully to its Trio section - was most assured.

The acute contrast between accompanying dotted rhythms, of quasi-militaristic austerity - in best Haydnesque sense, as infused too by sense of revolutionary, Napoleonic air to world about depicted here – and more sublime and flowing utterance of the Adagio was spelled out in beautifully well proportioned relief. Sensuous quality to principal clarinet’s tracing of the second theme was such for which one can not ask any apology, along with time to linger over completing certainly expanded retransition in this Adagio as well.

By way of contrast was the bracing perpetuum mobile finale, taken certainly very fast, not excessively so, but perhaps almost made to appear so by an unbroken inner vitality to it - unerring in Malkki's grasp thereof. Nothing got shortchanged, at least until poor principal bassoon was given second half of its opening theme to match the drive which the BBC strings were injecting into it all by that point. He was excellent, nevertheless, in for instance how he handled just as rapidly the entire theme a moment earlier.

This prom did not overshadow hearing the Boulez/Birtwistle prom Malkki and London Sinfonietta offered two summers ago. Even that this one could have started with a more fulfilling, even if shorter example of contemporary music than it did, one had to be grateful to have what proved here such unassuming, but very fulfilling grasp of the traditional repertoire. For Malkki, one world hardly exists without the other.

Prom 25. BBC Nat'l Orch of Wales, Thierry Fischer. Emmanuel Pahud, Francois Leloux, Paul Meyer, soloists (Jarrell). Royal Albert Hall - August 3, 2009.

Thierry Fischer’s Beethoven/Berlioz prom followed almost too hard on the heels of Susanna Malkki the night before, given such very high standards to which hers rose. Nevertheless, for Frances-Juges overture that opened Fischer’s, here was a highly spirited, if mildly detached account of it, with much varied and incisive color, notably dark from lower brass for especially their more sinister utterances. Accuracy with very tricky string writing might have though at a couple of places come into slight doubt. Fischer highlighted Berlioz’s uniqueness as a composer therein very well, with for instance brief trio of flutes over chromatically descending triads as dovetailing eruptions from the brass. The academia parodying second theme played as obbligato in the cellos to nothing during the Recapitulation was yet another example. Much fun and clamor was made with the cheeky while fully achieved second theme for rousing close to it all.

A now completed version of Sillages (or Traces) by Michel Jarrell followed the Berlioz, for what proved to be an often quite inscrutable piece. Scored for three high woodwinds and large orchestra, much of it plays as transcription into humanly achieved pitch from music written for IRCAM and associated hardware. This piece makes sublime the fragility of music, that too of holding onto a human voice - to extent that such may still be possible. There is a plethora of toccata writing, especially for solo oboe, among trio of flute, clarinet, and oboe, likely as such to equivocate its own self with oscillating sine waves or what have you. More clearly than before in the new second movement - with its offbeat dance steps near its outset are there moments that very well intimate human gesture Such intimation could occasionally be felt during the first movement - as played here picking up if still dryly on the deception that intent here would be to play much intricacy wrapping around everything as though merely mechanical, when this is likely not the real intent. Even without trying, that as from a machine and in inherent dialectics, there is a perceptible human voice that still makes itself be known or heard.

Tonal centers are (as though anomalously) set up, such as on a long held, repeated A at the beginning of the piece, for much stirred up linear and contrapuntal activity to envelop them. Lower rumblings from brass and percussion practically almost suggest a new language of overtones in a world of ever expanding vision and possibilities, to add to the one that already well enough exists. Combination of sonority, timbre, space not only recalls some of the best compositions of Boulez, but also of Messiaen. Moments of long held tone, sonorities with sparse activity circling about seem to expose where there are gaps or even holes perhaps. They perhaps too suggest areas through which sound can not quite effectively travel. Except for extra concertato of soloists within, orchestral parts in this piece tended to follow a statelier pace in echoing, inverting, mirroring, amplifying what the principal soloists presented.

One enigma perhaps is the difference in characterization between the three soloists, except for some flute playing held quite aloft and oboe as relentlessly virtuosic at times as to resemble in effect mechanistically giving output. The ephemerally very rapid and brief stretto of horns off single note tremolo in the violins on C-sharp near the end of the first movement was also noteworthy. A slurred retreating flurry of stretto then emerges over a harmonically extended pedal - remindful of the close of the Berg Chamber Concerto and thus almost giving the impression that the first movement of this was over four minutes before it really was. This is instead followed by one last very elaborate contrapuntal episode that then breaks off to nearly two minute episode of stillness. Elaborately intertwining polyphony for the three wind soloists then spins itself out, to conclusion of leaving solo clarinet high aloft.

Jarrell composed the second movement especially with in mind expanding the role and individual character of clarinet and flute soloists. In doing so, he only partly succeeded. Lines of broad lyricism could limn - including even during the first movement for oboe - what might traverse so much space - as for what we might imagine could be there. So much else only gets strongly implied to be so dense. Such lyricism above could also be noted for the extensive closing pages of this work, if seemingly disjunctive in spirit, organizationally so, from what lift has been provided such lyricism earlier.

Fischer and his forces certainly proved non-ostentatiously faithful to the composer’s intent, if from dry or detached perspective. It is open question how much more can happen here in terms of infusing such music with more color, character, and driving force. Here was as good a stab at it as could have anywhere been anticipated.

It perhaps might have been to err on the side of being cerebral for audience to return from the break to immediately take in the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, so inserted between on this program was the Berlioz Symphonie funebre et triomphale. This marked only the Berlioz symphony's second outing at the Proms, with called for its full complement of eighty winds, 18 percussion players, but no strings on a large Royal Albert Hall stage. Presenting this music with the simple dignity, nobility it deserves seemed to be the best strategy - which Fischer with more varied forces followed. Tenor trombone solo, taken from the no longer extant opera “Les Frances-Juges” had the right eloquent simplicity to it, as did preceding noble cortege with varied divisions of its stanzas into two parts.

An indeed immediately bracing account of the Beethoven “Eroica” after one further break then got under way. The specificity one gets in phrasing so often from Thierry Fischer sounded just only three-fourths there for good portions of the first movement. The heroic element here was something freely to be understated, and as such is a welcome approach, over and above the standard garden variety heavy rhetorical cliché one runs across often with this piece. Some accenting here did become crude at times, but overall the goal with conducting this music seemed mostly clear, if not as thoroughly worked out as certainly could have been the case. Fischer clearly avoided taking the marcia funebre second movement too slowly, but with near as certain shaping of the opening theme as happened for Ingo Metzmacher in Berlin as performed there last fall; there was minimal fuss with phrasing here to detract from the solemnity and gravitas of this music. Fugue and recapitulation however were straight-forward to an extent of threatening to give us somewhat a streamlined, glib approach to assignment even here.

Smooth articulation by valveless horns for trio of the Scherzo was a highlight, in the midst of relaxed trio and contented outdoors feel to what Fischer made the scherzo, even if cheating a few rhythms here and there at getting it. The finale, excusing that the Prometheus theme, first time to be heard, got rushed off its tether a bit at one point, was excellent here. The fugue, following a still quite high level of speed, circumspectly maintained its own internal vigor, instead of cheaply having anyone bully accents for it. Pacing, combined with thorough preparation to get accents right here, was very adept, but moreover, fearless. Such held very true for the G Minor dance variation, in attempting to get the bucolic merriment of this passage just right.

Though working out of a different playbook than Metzmacher, Fischer equally eschewed making too ‘eroica’ augmented ‘Prometheus’ in the brass, connecting it instead quietly with the preceding gentle but still connected lilt to all that transpires here and into nearly ending the Andante in G Minor. Such was limned with fine poignancy and exemplifying all that this music can and should be. The Presto coda, without it getting pushed too hard, maintained for not being hard-nosed ‘period’ its becoming a hearty peroration of bracing and compelling vigor to all that had transpired.

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