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 15, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - 28 and 29 - Noseda's Proms

Proms 28 and 29. BBC Philharmonic (Manchester), Gianandrea Noseda. Karen Geogeghan, Vivica Genaux. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 5 and 6, 2009.

If anyone has been determined to make a decisive showing at the 2009 Proms, it is Gianandrea Noseda. The working assumption about the first prom - in wake of Haitink’s fine Mahler Ninth - was that if Mahler Six got missed this time, it would not be serious.

From how things looked, there was also too much music programmed on the first of Noseda’s two concerts, as though to apologize for then rushing through the Mahler. For a summer during which the Stravinsky ballets have not been clicking too well – blandly played, rhythmically lifeless, soggy in ensemble, etc. – one does not look first of all to Scenes de ballet to wake things up. The only two ballets that Stravinsky had left to compose after this were Orpheus and Agon, the latter his first entirely fresh take on how to compose ballet in some time. In respectively the laconic irony and meditative plasticity of the last two neo-classical ballets, Scenes and Orpheus still occupy unique places in the Stravinsky canon. I have not yet at these Proms run across a wittier performance of any of these ballets than how Noseda conducted Scenes de Ballet.

Scenes de ballet, for lasting sixteen minutes, is rife with gesture from a gratuitous variety of sources, even enough perhaps to confuse some of them with each other. Among the wittiest come from, for instance Hollywood ‘wild West’ and vaudeville - but all made Stravinsky’s very own. Was the duet two-thirds through for cellos Palm Court (as BBC notes say) or cowboy ballad or some of both? The grand Russian ballet tradition gets its say just as charming relic that by 1944 it has become – no less than in Stravinsky’s rhythms for invocations of French overture from two centuries before. The classy played ‘on the trail’ central trumpet solo in this also had good swagger to it.

Mood and texture become austere toward the end; with Noseda keeping everything in sharp profile, any lapse in inspiration was hardly noticeable - all to prepare major supertonic chord to outlandishly offset floating of pan-diatonic sonorities in the brass. One could just think back to a sequence of several minutes taking one one from Petrushka-like toy waltz, followed by klezmar sounding hoedown among violas, through Tchaikovsky bluebird-mode flute to jazz riff from principal clarinet. With this music, upon too delayed re-acquaintance, any surprise is still possible.

With combination of deft touch, ear for the most acrid sonorities Stravinsky offers, precise rhythm and equally sharp wit, no better advocate for this piece could have been found than Noseda. Mozart Noseda made both directly and elegantly turned divertissement in advent of onslaught to follow the interval.

Based partly on stereotype of how Mahler 6 should go, but also on the notion one can still have about Noseda about his both being highly intuitive and man of the theater still strongly factor in, one had a little trouble doing away with a few doubts with the Mahler until a little ways in. I wondered about, at the outset, the overall dry sound quality, not only seeming to reduce mid-range from the sonorities as just doing so. Here was something close to following strict classical model, that of Toscanini - such as with George Szell’s drier Mahler in Cleveland years ago; Toscanini did not conduct Mahler.

Garish shaping to opening subjects was provocative - the pointing of especially greater than octave leaps in the melodic line. Very little of this could have been grand-standing on Noseda’s part; otherwise, the whole endeavor would have been quickly dismissible. Even thinking back to a notably severe Beethoven Eighth – slightly different work than Mahler 6 – at last year’s Proms, all occurring here was very clearly on purpose. Some thinness of BBC Philharmonic strings became an issue in both.

Noseda’s pace for the first movement tended toward propulsive - without insipidly turning it athletic or faux optimistic, such as Bernstein could. As for interpretative editorializing, Noseda’s work here betrayed very little. Most interesting was the varied handling of the ‘Alma’ second theme, with all being made of ‘Schwungvoll’ (as it is marked) the first time, a more levelheaded application of such for its repeat. Special emphases got applied for it to reappear cadentially (in the recapitulation) - of which Noseda made something slightly fuller than his usual inclination - still emotionally detached from the subject. If there was an effect, and before I looked in at all on Peter Maxwell Davies piece to come the following evening, it was of Alma being approached by varied camera angles - on different lenses perhaps – to notably surreal effect. Noseda allowed little heart-on-sleeve at all for trumpet led coda to the first movement, with (more frequently) triumphant statement of ‘Alma.’ The cowbells episode emerged relatively serene - in context of all the rest, with fine atmosphere, following trumpets fiercely restating the opening theme.

Scherzo came second – with timpani hit with precise, strong accents on ‘third beats’ - all near edge of the drum-head for more hollow results. This was indeed Mahler of a rough-hewn variety as opposed to tendency for emphasis to land on color or coloristic effects. All coyness got dropped from the childrens’ games - with their rhythmic irregularity most notably marked - quite heavily underlined as well. Rasp accompanying spectral waltz that returns things to pounding main theme caught one’s ear.

The Andante moderato offered only several fleeting moments of relief from bleak intensity to so much else. Emphasis, especially with oboe and English horn alternating theme in the minor mode, was still on anguish, with thus the chromatic and enharmonic colorings of Mahler’s writing pointed that way, including way they fragment processes - as well as make roads smooth. Noseda never weakened the spell he wrought by letting this music even momentarily sink into bathos. Sparse harmonies therein were spelled out, just as to emphasize without losing tone quality their dissonances - as though across as barren a landscape one encounters in the Adagio of the Tenth (heard as beautifully spelled out along wider grasp of Mahler’s tonal palette by Metzmacher very recently in Berlin) and in some of the Ninth.

The finale helped emphasize the greatest strengths of how Noseda approached the entire symphony - with it also surfacing what got slightly diminished in the process. First off, it was as grim, hurtling toward the abyss - unforced, inevitably sounding it as possible, strongly so. Noseda, just described here as working somewhat intuitively with Mahler, did not here command an ear taken up by the interwoven quality of Mahler’s harmonic language and all that might mean structurally or to full extent harmonically. By same token, dissonances occurring in very lowest registers - what they mark - got very clearly spelled out. Spacing in quieter, more eerie sections of the finale was calibrated to great finesse. Noseda would too hone in well on the most incisive pitches within brass chord progressions at nodal points, thus at several moments make an entire progression shoot out as though about to start a conflagration.

Noseda also left on purpose not sense of harmonic progressions being dropped (altogether), but as depleted to extent he needed of life to leave for emphasis the very stark linearity of Mahler’s writing. Emphasis on such linearity spelled out the struggle and anguish of what transpires here in a naked and harrowing way. Some of the Brucknerian qualities of Mahler’s conception here perhaps got shortchanged, but what has become at times a sanitized quality to the seemingly diffuse nature of Mahler’s harmonic writing, for Noseda’s purposes, confidently got understated, even removed as well. Rhythms were very tight for terse and hurtling forward Development. Violins at the opening of the finale made their sweeping line one of a little desperation and struggle out of sense of emotional fatigue to make the crest of the line. After beautifully limned chorale in lower winds and brass, the final A Minor chord sounded not only crushing, but as clearly inevitable as it ever has sounded.

This may not have been the most satisfying Mahler Sixth, but great risk-taking applied so directly to be refreshing more than compensating for any loss encountered here was very compelling. With emphasis so much on linear aspects of the writing, a certain corrosive quality to some of Mahler’s harmonic language clearly emerged, even linking moments in the Sixth with occurring bitonalities in the Fifth Symphony. The urban, cosmopolite hubbub thus implied and confusion of fin-du-siecle Vienna Mahler knew was abundantly clear here as well.

The need for rest, for peace this music cries out for also in the ‘Abscheid’ symphonies (including Das Lied) is thus, though more submerged here in the earlier Ruckert symphonies. We have just met again at the Proms a most despairing take on Mahler – after depressed, more diffuse Haitink LSO Ninth three weeks before –a Sixth with an edge to it as though demarcated by a sharp knife – not as one might insipidly for cheap effect get now sometimes, but such as one might even associate with, hardly at all a Mahlerian – Igor Markevitch. As Noseda grows with this piece, so will his coming across as mildly two-dimensional fade - for a greater simplicity with Mahler, internal grasp thereof for which he strives for and fully let on here.

Featured most of all the second night was the fully extensive rhapsodic love letter Peter Maxwell Davies wrote the city of Rome - place he had visited and had studied with Petrassi twenty to thirty years earlier than writing this – Roma, amor. It is not without critical eye and ear he has approached his subject here, and with Noseda acutely aware and with great sensitivity just as in the Mahler the night before what and how to point (it) out. Noseda and his forces handled the overt modernism, the italianita of even Davies’ conception, its nostalgic and ruminative airs this music takes on as though native tongue and with keen insight as to structure, how it is all stitched together.

In myriad kaleidoscope of color and effect - not at all as to window-dress the place – with elements as frequently clashing with each other as blend - typical in Maxwell Davies – Rome becomes here (as it already is) a seething multicultural pot. Saints in form of statues, guarding from upon high, make probing gaze on a world, as is Rome, sitting below among so many diverse influences, ancient and modern, sacred and profane, pagan and medieval, from close and from afar. They stand in check to at least supposedly guard upon high the eternal city from anything too pernicious.

There is however little of course statues can do to prevent so much heavy smog, noise, and traffic confusion. An episode of calliope breaks in on loud stretto response to long extended lines of Phrygian mode and whole tone scale (redolent of Arabic sounding melody from solo English horn in the first movement) in woodwinds that start the second movement. Moment of greatest solace in the entire piece closes the same movement with strings playing with fine simplicity a womens’ hymn from small, closed church hidden somewhere in the city.

Festive dance in duet of trumpets in thirds - to those living near enough Mexico here coming across mariachi - gets practically completely ripped apart by forceful intrusion of crowd and traffic noise. Ostinati of reverse dotted rhythm timpani – doing almost all possible to choke off intimations of street song from the violins - abstractedly depict image of dark, bellicose references to a savage past.

Davies carefully frames his first movement with spelling out of wide ranging glissandi-spiced octaves on C, crosscut with lyrical strands of Lydian mode starting on G-Flat – a tritone away. Such framing – suggesting the quasi-Byzantine - of his ideas for a minute or two at the outset of this abstractly provides on the surface an illusory, tenuous stability, but with underneath a somewhat true underpinning to all that transpires here of contaminazione (or fragmentation). Very high thin sustained overtones in violins that several times would thin out to nothing also sublimely reflected so much of this.

Amidst the battery on reverse dotted figuration from timpani and elsewhere, one can also hear ascending sequences in the violins in harmonic whole tones, resembling in context of acrid air and harmony a light shower breaking out over the city - such still inadequate to sufficiently expel the choking dust and smog. More pristine scoring for celesta, glockenspiel with high winds and strings, as relief from the generally lugubrious air, provides relief in a less foreshortened episode later on – possibly reflecting that which is bejeweled, crystalline among finer imagery. Noseda limned the antiphony of the calling out of saints atop church rooftops toward the end, with writing possibly, vaguely recalling that of Messiaen, with fine dignity and aplomb. By such got prepared a beautifully calibrated moment of stillness to follow and just the suggestion, as written, of Rome's church bells, from very small to large starting to toll over city at dusk. It is such over which the curtain fell on all of this. Noseda also subtly pointed out rumblings low toward end of the first movement that almost certainly could be reminiscing on start down Via Appia in what followed here.

Noseda then made Pines of Rome, warhorse it is, fitting sequel to what we had just heard, with the risk, with doing this, it would cheapen the effect of hearing something so engrossing, passionate as just had been the Maxwell Davies. Not to worry. Heavy gilding, lushing out of Respighi’s sonorities got put aside. Hollywood vision of Rome, how to sell it, got banished. Splash of water amidst Villa Borghese was not Technicolor, but instead the cool refreshment it offers instead. Noseda found equally mercurial the play of children, instead of being hard-driven - without having to underline a thing.

Chant on scene of the Catacombs pines was placed a couple of extra distances from entering ‘In a Monastery Garden,’ as to reflect, as almost it could be Stravinsky’s Mass, something equally Byzantine, mysterious, austere. A hint of the orientalism in Puccini’s writing informed the Geniculum pines, due to expression here being so entirely genuine. Clarinet – a hair-raising moment – entered at double pianissimo over great stillness to have fallen over everything – without hint of affectation to break the spell. Broad pacing through these two episodes became neither flabby nor self-conscious as can easily be the case under a less sure hand. Such was also the case for Noseda’s start down Via Appia. Throwing all cliché aside, BBC Philharmonic ranks gradually ascended to the cumulative power of a truly ringing close to Pines of Rome.

Noseda equally felt at home with Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony - cheerful opener for his second prom, with neither turn to minor mode nor anything else in its first movement hard-driven. He instead maintained incisive spring to rhythm, and flexibility to infuse phrase endings to second subject con soavita - hint of portamento. Even the third movement was not too pretty, as Noseda might find a cliché; right under the surface was an earthiness, ruddy color. Had Mendelssohn found such on his own, he had soaked in the color of a sun-drenched land in latitude beneath the Alps perhaps better than we had imagined – but call this contaminazone too if you like. Concertato of flutes gently, suavely gilded solemn Dorian mode procession inhabiting the second movement, to convey a most rapt sense of naivete. Most rapt and equally informed was the joyous turn and animation to the closing saltarello to bring the 'Italian' to a furious conclusion.

Solo turns on Mozart and Rossini belonged to Karen Geogehan - deep, soulfully dark in tone for Mozart, but with always fine profile to phrasing and secure virtuosity - and Vivicia Genaux respectively. Genaux sang Malcolm’s entrance aria from Donna del Lago and Angelina’s rondo from Cenerentola as equally secure and confident about each. Noseda accompanied with fine, elegant gallant turn of phrase and incisively spiced color and rhythm for each aria, respectively.

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