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 22, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - Prom 34 - the Karabits debut - Bournemouth SO)

Kirill Karabits chose for his Proms debut what on the surface looked like a splashy Russian program - to close with Khachaturian ballet excerpts - with still new orchestra for him – the Bournemouth SO. Performances of Stravinsky ballets at the Proms this year have veered from being mostly dull (Belohlavek, Nelsons, Brabbins, Knussen) to inept (Nezet-Seguin). Noseda came along with a Scenes de Ballet in form of shot in the arm; I would not have described Scenes de Ballet - certainly neither the complete Baiser de la fee – au naturel on such terms before. Edward Gardner gave us a fine Les Noces - one perhaps still cut or two above how civilized it should be.

One has the gratuitous luxury of ability to rewind, replay passages on BBC Radio Player. The first eight minutes of this Fairy’s Kiss I went back for ten times, as though masterminding a heavy film editing job perhaps - having to yell ‘stop tape’ every whip snitch – but for all the right reasons, as opposed to wrong ones. Karabits did not come up with what he did conventionally but little.

The 25 minute Divertimento - as opposed to 42-45 minute ballet - presents us with excerpts from Fairy’s Kiss with which we are most familiar. Listeners are more at ease without awkward sounding transitions between and other framing that most times has just seemed to get in the way - perhaps based on pretense only known to Stravinsky himself. The music is based on songs and piano pieces by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with one or two allusions to Sleeping Beauty also thrown in. This music is about the farthest Stravinsky gets from writing Rite of Spring - and about the most palatable Stravinsky for people who hate Rite. (Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds, even with its Bachian writing, written within two years of Baiser, alludes back to Rite in its finale).

First of all, we should consider momentarily the music of Tchaikovsky; there is good reason why his music works its way into how conductors read this ballet. Tchaikovsky certainly has his subtleties, but is widely loved for being the proponent of the big tune in his symphonies, and to get the message across, this usually involves a good deal of doubling in the score. Some of this aspect does indeed meander into piano pieces and songs as well, but often less oppressively so. Stravinsky loved Tchaikovsky’s music on its own terms; in what he said he gave little reason for having to apologize for it – for what Pierre Boulez, for instance, has dismissed as ‘threadbare.'

Nothing about the Karabits approach to Fairy’s Kiss sounded dry, gaunt, eviscerated at all, except for Bournemouth being slightly less than one of the top orchestras in either the UK or the world; they gave here of their very best. You have with new 32 year old Ukranian on their podium an ear acutely sensitive to both color and rhythm in equal proportion, and to dynamics. Without being cloying, saccharine, any of that, he revealed manner of coaxing plentiful nuance out of things that often with who is on the podium self-conscious to be conducting Stravinsky will abstractly deny.

There is also the bar line and those places too where Stravinsky’s scoring, at least as it appears on the surface (while also appearing that way to be easy), is slightly heavy. Karabits, instead of taking such at face value, coaxed the right accents out of chords to, while shot through with extra color, allow the music to move almost seamlessly through such passages. This was as a bar line and transition free Fairy’s Kiss as we may legtimately ever hear. What happened here in ‘transitions’ was practically as significant as what happened elsewhere, even little half-measure long transition like material that can so easily trip up the unsuspecting, with which Karabits brought out great wit from therein. Sprightly passages of the Pas de Deux made case in point.

I could leave off here, except to further describe a few sections of the ballet as Karabits conducted them, but my curiosity is aroused to a degree - better instead to pry around some for what the impetus behind what happened here might have been. Stravinsky was when he wrote Baiser still in his first decade of being a neo-classical composer, not neo-romantic (so much). Whichever way, this is music that obviously draws upon the past, but how far? Karabits made something mildly extra sublime of the fact that here is music based upon for the composer an ‘old style’ - with what ramifications of supposedly being arcane that that might all imply.

The way we can picture Stravinsky being choreographed, with as an aside also in mind’s eye dance scenes or contrivances of such in Fellini films, something quite abstract made of all of this and thus more sophisticated this way. It may indeed however be more sophisticated to approach Stravinsky this way - the usual way – including this piece – but Karabits suggested something still yet more sophisticated – that hides it being so. Karabits did not quite altogether chuck or neglect element of Paris salon and even possibly Americanism of such in how he approached this music.

Readers of musicology covering Stravinsky know of Richard Taruskin – denounced by strong detractors as an ideologue, perhaps especially concerning Stravinsky. I am one neither to embrace Taruskin nor throw out entirely what he has written. In his opinion, if I read an excerpt of his stuff yesterday evening correctly, Stravinsky is as far from his Russian roots in the way he went about Baiser as he ever became, and as far from Rite as he possibly could have put things as well. Stravinsky probably would not have dismissed Tchaikovsky as so ‘Balkan’ as does Taruskin. If so, Kirill Karabits is apparently not well read in Taruskin, but no matter.

Most guilelessly, Karabits basically chucked any such notion about Baiser. Remember that Stravinsky once studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky, being neo-classical and perhaps a little arcane about what sources he picked out (with exception of one for very near ballet’s finale), also perhaps had knack for drawing upon neo-classicism in such a way to indicate how such itself may partially draw upon what had preceded it by just a generation before as well. I quote, concerning opera Rusalka by Alexander Dargomizhky, that Stravinsky loved. Dargomizhky influenced Tchaikovsky as much as he did anybody else. Stravinsky spoke of him (in Poetics of Music - quoted by Taruskin twice) – in terms of “a happy ability to mingle the Russian popular melos and the prevailing Italianism with the most carefree and charming ease.” This quote has not come to mind before – familiar to me for some time now - while listening to “Fairy’s Kiss.”

Should the new maestro with Bournemouth be reading this, let him take it as worthwhile suggestion to pick up Dargomizhky's Rusalka - preferred by me to the Dvorak. The current young somewhat firebrand music director of the London Philharmonic has done lately a little dabbling about in rarely performed short operatic subjects by Rimsky and Rachmaninov. On evidence of this Fairy's Kiss, Karabits may indeed be preferable - or Vedernikov (of the Bolshoi), Noseda, or perhaps Ilan Volkov.

So guileless, charming - appearing to work with great ease - was Karabit’s work here for what became a most auspicious Proms debut. What turns out truly most sophisticated sometimes is what works best as possible at hiding it, such as we all experience in Mozart, whom to Artur Schnabel there were both the too young and too old to be able to play it well. The old world charm of what we heard here was indeed in the melos - with incisive spring to rhythms - that Karabits found here. Even compared with Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky loved working in Italianita and commedia dell’arte, dating back to Petrushka – doing so with unforced ease.

The suggestion of gentle thaw in the string tremolo beneath clarinet in dreamy reprise of the opening of the ballet had mild element, in color so brought out something of Rimsky’s Snow Maiden perhaps therein, while still just being Tchaikovsky – but as colored by Stravinsky. After this, I waited for Karabits to fall on some crutch, such as prominent bar line or enforcing a hefty downbeat somewhere to reassure himself at such point, but in vain – including refusal to halt at all for start to first episode of Danses suisses (scene 2) instead of injecting subtle subito piu mosso instead there. It all happened with such supple economy and wit, to make one think Karabit’s wrists are made out of leather - free of all but most subtle downbeats.

The seemingly invented titles over passages in the score suggest as much, but I have had yet to hear such seamless, gently inflected line make it all the way from start of next to final scene ‘None but the Lonely Heart’ to briefly then the very end of the piece, without things getting more than minimally overwrought to clotted. The music just so wafted off at the end, leaving one perhaps to pinch one’s self to check how cognitively wide awake one might be or not.

Had Ferenc Fricsay heard any of this, it might have persuaded him he should have conducted the complete ballet. I’ve never been able to make the case before, as I have always thought that either the complete score has issues - or something elusive we have been missing all along. Those days should now be over for Fairy’s Kiss.

Show of grandeur came with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto - ideal pairing with the Stravinsky. There are still several kinks to work out interpretatively between Julian Rachlin and Karabits – with perhaps a few risks the latter took with transitions involving tempo in the finale. Most all else was spot-on; on two recent discs of the concerto, on Sony and DGG, one could only count several more transitions that worked on those than the less than handful that might have fallen short here. The grand gesture presented itself here in strong, but never underlined or exaggerated profile, as this was a more probing look, confiding in perspective, than one to merely make virtuoso display. Rachlin freely mixed aristocratic manner to his phrasing with catching the work’s earthy allusions to peasant tunes and dances.

Karabits opened the first movement, with not auspiciously slow but allargando arch to opening statement - somehow important to argument to follow - then with perfectly guaged subito piu mosso to anticipate fine solo entrance. Rachlin spun out the long line with great introspection and ardor, combining aristocratic passion with dark tone rich in color and with classical appreciation for the form of the first movement. Karabits was invited by Rachlin in as fully deserving co-protagonist in supporting, enhancing him for a very haunting, poetic account - eschewing all cliché, mannerism, dull conventionality - of the slow movement. With playing that had already given us some of the quality of Oistrakh with hint of Szerying, if still less distinctive than either, Rachlin followed up with the sarabande from Bach’s D Minor partita with similar ardor, profile, passion, discretion. Compared with even some of who are considered leading violinists of our day, his is very much a class act.

Following a rousing finish to the Tchaikovsky was Khatchaturian, and at last we were in for type of prom I had first suspected this was. Karabits had the tastes for close of this prom, at least not to milk the Spartacus Adagio for between all and twice its worth; that was refreshing. This music too deserves its share of dignity or even compassion. It was time however for those who might have been expecting it – with an all Russian program – for the brash side of youth to let itself out – and with the three dances chosen, especially the last of three numbers chosen from Spartacus and Hopak from Gayaneh, Karabits with robust joie de vivre did not disappoint a soul at the Royal Albert.

Checking out Bournemouth’s website, I found not surprisingly the emphasis on the Russian repertoire and sensed a need for the repertoire to expand. Time spent on Haydn symphonies can be very helpful to him and then that he can soon or over time turn around to be of great help to the orchestras he conducts to play them very well. A positive attitude toward doing the best and often more progressive of twentieth century and new music can also be encouraged. We are discussing possibly a major conducting talent here - someone who once took time in Berlin to research a thought lost St John Passion by CPE Bach and to transcribe it. It took me only eight minutes of Stravinsky - how some of it required repeating it, to figure that out.

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