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 30, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - Proms 51 and 53 - Vanska/BBC SO and Norrington/OAE

Prom 51. BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Osmo Vanska. Helena Juntunen, Monica Groop, Scott Hendricks. Joshua Bell. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 23, 2009.

Given how few Haydn symphonies there are at the Proms during a Haydn year, one certainly wants all three to each have been successful. With it especially being a ‘period’ approach taken to Haydn here, but with the BBC SO still using modern instruments, things got off here to a stodgy beginning with unclear or wayward phrasing during the introduction to first movement of Haydn’s ‘Clock’ – Symphony No. 101 in D Major.

Once onto the Presto of the first movement, pace was near sufficiently vigorous, but accenting flaccid, toward defining opening lines, while paradoxically even showing inflexibility with the same. Vanska proved good at shaping the second theme and allowing some real rubato, nuance with interaction early during the Development section. Again returned dry, strict, even at times ham-fisted accenting – that can also be flaccid – for the retransition. Such became rule of the day overall for much of the rest of the way.

The Andante Vanska turned into something galante - with apparently more important line here the tic-toc beneath the tune instead of at least equally the charming tune itself. That the melodic line should strictly conform to such regularity underneath, for one, just almost makes tune obbligato to such strict accompaniment, or hints toward option to do so. It was almost comically not less the case with near closing robust variation on triplets. Restart to simple main theme in minor mode sub-mediant (E-flat Major) replying to false close to the Andante seemed to miss the irony of this moment entirely. A wink and nudge, i.e. brief intimation of clock being rewound, might have worked.

Vanska gave the Minuet proper accenting and its lines halfway decent breathing room to be elegant; something to it however was still slightly too unvarying, that it still missed achieving the height of elegance or near it as should be. Off the beat accents in stretto at end of the Minuet turned out strict; they did not quite register properly; irony of melody that includes changing harmony in it over unchanging chord in the Trio was also missed.

Lack of contrast between variations in development of its material and animation applied from without instead of within made things somewhat ungainly of the finale. Loss of internal accents alternated with punching out others hard did not assist matters toward at all overcoming occasionally sloppy ensemble and flaccid grasp of rhythm.

Austerity and simplicity with what is seen as universal or ecumenical application of penitential text adopted by Roman Catholic rite seems to have been the modus operandi with, sung in Polish, the Stabat Mater of Karol Szymanowski. There is no denying that such qualities are welcome, however some of the color, even the exotic or archaic at times in use of modal scales and bitonality therein got somewhat understated, even at times eviscerated away here. One could for instance ask for more than so literal a reading of the opening wind solos to the introductory movement to this setting. Helena Juntunen, in her opening soprano solo, somewhat thickly scooped her part, finding before long only just adequate placement, control of pitch, as all part of placing her voice a little too far back. Broken octaves in the cellos over moderate paced eighth notes were played dry - not having good reverb to be any under-girding current beneath things. Subtle rhythmic impetus here became lost.

Pulsation on alternations between winds, and lower strings was denied here by again excessive literalism, such as would only slightly better fit the second movement of Symphony of Psalms. Women of the BBC chorus achieved Slavic color and warmth for one interlude in the second movement, but baritone Scott Hendricks found his tessitura slightly precarious and got covered up by orchestra and chorus on closing phrases.

A beat crept into Monica Groop’s voice, as got mixed in with slowly building counterpoint between solo lines in the winds to start the third movement – all played with fine simplicity but dry tone and downbeats clearly marked. Dry rhetoric from the strings, with anticipation of much pomp, eventually turned muddy. Marked dolce about the sound was mostly lost - Lento dolcissimo – more dolce unmarked achieved from chorus of women a cappella that opened the fourth movement. By contrast, the Mussorgskian pointing in cellos and basses that opened the fifth movement was apt, and some good acrid descant from the winds got through too therein. Scott Hendricks, in validly trying to be incisive and forceful with his lines, still found himself under considerable strain. Grandiose climax, though muddy, even cheesy in effect, was achieved from all forces involved, nevertheless. Both Juntunen and Groop, though occasionally unsteady, contributed good line and expression to the finale. Vanska found some measure of tranquility here, even if often self-conscious in anticipating the downbeat too much.

Pastoral idyll, by lean or quite strict means of achieving it, informed the opening of the Brahms Violin Concerto; one still sought a little more definition or profile to the orchestral exposition. ‘Minore’ entrance of Joshua Bell proved, in double and triple stops, little better, in terms of intonation; once achieving right thereafter soaring line, matters improved. What became most worrisome, even in the context of affecting ‘period’ Brahms, were flaccid, too retiring accents from Osmo Vanska and his forces, to be able to support the tough obbligato of Bell’s part. This became true especially during the Development section of the first movement, but also even during passages of the Exposition. After trouble with double stops beforehand, one oddly found a few added on during an otherwise (than having written extra double stops for himself) very well written cadenza Bell wrote himself and played here. In eschewing vibrato on lyrical pages, Bell tended to lose body to his tone on the Strad he was using, and thus the ability to sustain good legato beyond what one might call anemic.

One could find Vanska circumspect at attempting to preserve chamber like textures orchestrally - but effortfully so. What sense of rhythm that also infuses this music’s sonorities got denied, retaining for numerous passages a textural density that Vanska attempted very much to eschew. It was all, including both sagging oboe line and plodding through middle section of the second movement (with shaky intonation from Bell both here and in finale as well), such to have come off awkwardly. Rigid coordination, manipulation of jaunty rhythms in the finale appeared both due to linsufficient technique and to appear distinctive, the vanity of having to so inflexibly stick to one’s guns –in way practically construed as ‘fundamentalist.’ The whole point, in being able to say or communicate much – in terms of sufficient follow-through – got lost.

Those just more than intermittently occurring moments that Bell and Vanska coincided well lyrically came as antidote to drudgery getting through listening to this Brahms - at what resembled more draggy tempos than they actually were - especially for the first two movements. All in all, there was hardly much memorable to preserve from this for future reference.

Prom 53. Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment, Roger Norrington. Joyce di Donato. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 25, 2009.

Roger Norrington began his composer-anniversary-salute prom with the Abdelazer Suite by Henry Purcell, with slender grace - deft reply back and forth and lift between phrases in more animated steps and stately poise for opening French overture to it. A fine cross between both qualities for the iconically famous Rondeau, with incisively pointed French rhythms, was equally effective. It is this Rondeau that closes the suite and inspired Britten for Young Person’s Guide - Norrington closing it with arm flourish as if to say, as related by BBC emcee, ‘well, there you are.’

Joyce di Donato started off well with one trouser-role aria out of three she picked to sing here - one that clearly fits a mezzo. She started the first line of “Ombra mai fu”, effective this time if not for this device in one or two later pieces, with straight tone, gradually adding vibrato into it over a long sustained note. This was followed here by spinning forth the noble line of this aria with fine poise and refinement.

Alcina’s “Ah! mio cor” however started the same way, past good intro and recitative. Notes around the staff though got often approached with somewhat aspirated light, straight tone, for expressive effect. However, the acting was very fine, in catching for this sorceress during first section, a very palpable mix of incomprehension of entirely new-found as to be entirely novel feelings for a man and outrage that such could have arisen. Brief agitato, more confident B section revealed well the sorceress shoring up the steely resolve for things to return to just how they were before she ever met Ruggero – those happy days before there being a man in her life now long gone. Heavily aspirated, back phrased segue back to A section led to better but less than entirely poised vocalism.

Di Donato then became hooty, even slipping out of tune at top of the staff a few times – in expressing Alcina’s resignation. Her despairing descent to give into what new feelings have developed – moment of profound tragedy for anyone of feminist or even just postmodern day socially correct tendencies - was poignant. Roger Norrington slipped from giving di Donato and Handel the fully balanced, framed ritornello at the beginning of the aria it needs here, with excessive reliance on lift to start each (sub)-phrase.

Most effectively – with more filled out OAE strings than for Purcell - Norrington led Handel’s Water Music Suite #2 with fine pointing of rhythms and stylistic aplomb – especially true on Minuet and siciliana to follow it and also trio to Hornpipe. Lumpy first chord opening the Allegro and understatement of regal splendor cut a little short the real character of Overture and Hornpipe. Long gone however, rightly so, are the days of Rule Britannia Handel. Concertato of winds for trio to the minuet conveyed the right dignity and confidence to the writing, as did the feminine grace of OAE strings replying to winds for the siciliana. The Bourree brought things to a quite healthily vigorous close, but as might have some thinking of production earlier this year of Partenope at the Queen Elisabeth (conducted by Rousset there - under review in these pages).

Feminine statement of opening to Scena da Berenice form Norrington and his forces could be found slightly insipid - as imposed rethinking replacing a real understanding of what is at stake here. Di Donato however, though almost ironically tossing off noble Metastasian line of “Berenice, che fai?” - not Cosi Fan Tutte yet – got off to a fine start here. Di Donato excellently pointed contrast within same line of confused emotion on ‘Dove son” and dread in deep contralto of “tutto funeste” right before pushing at the break to verge on hooty again. Let's keep in mind however that di Donato depicted here a woman at end of her tether; she also found gentle vulnerability for last two lines of recitative before equally refined first part of double aria got under way with indeed seemingly Mozartean grace.

Support from Norrington here provided fine profile and adequate stirring up of the tempestuous cabaletta to this, not to overwhelm his singer through such despondent emotions – Berenice calling on the gods to increase her pains to point of death so she can join her just departed beloved Demetrius. Some flutter, made things still slightly little iffy here, but Di Donato confidently achieved fine passionate line, wide across range from low A on ‘dolor” to top of staff.

Securely formal, noble cortege got under way for brooding opening to Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. The gentle sway to line following opening statement animated things slightly more from without than from within. Same held true for similarly limned reprise thereof at close to prelude to the first movement. The wistfully sighed first subject of the Exposition was fully in character as was stirring up of the two agitated ritornelli that followed. Full second closing theme in sinuous line received all weight, lift it needed, to lovely effect – with tighter agitation stirred up and slightly fuller expression to close the Exposition, eventually followed by burnished color for modulating to major key submediant (C-sharp minor) to open the incisively stirring Development.

Norrington then seamlessly with deft touch introspectively carried along lean cello line and other activity calmly into the recap. Fine shudder informed very atmospherically ascending, descending string tremolo central to the coda before its weighty close. By way of contrast confident rustling of scherzo naturally burst forth (without gaggle of valveless horns becoming ‘period’ ear-sore). Tonguing flutes for second subject provided elfin touch; introspection was clearly felt for fleeting moment of brooding, before issuing forth intermezzo its joyously rowdy climax toward deftly rounding all things off.

Brooding intro and firmly weighted ritornelli framed lightly limned and beautifully supported bel canto line for the slow movement, that for such fine sense of proportions informing this music, hardly seemed too long as it can sometimes. With such also came fine voice leading to spin through reprise of ritornelli - for storm clouds that quickly roll through an altogether brief Development section to precede cellos taking up main subject with fine masculine ardor and refinement.

Final reprise of stormy ritornello occurred as organically inevitable; duet of clarinets warmly, resonantly almost got final say before strings swooped in with fine jig. Tremolo spun off main subject with free release and secure ensemble - to unhesitatingly open the finale. Firm, incisive rustle from lower strings, perhaps outré for a few ears taken to this extent, right before second subject was completely in character and so over the brim joyous to disarm all other than the sternest critics. Second subject had almost practically the elfin touch that informed the same with scherzo earlier. Norrington risked a few fractious moments in the Development but fully got away with it this time - with Recapitulation incisively coming in without insipid anticipation of downbeat.

Tremolo accompanying second theme amidst such festive air colorfully reminded of how heavy air and accompanying sharp breeze depicted cuts into lives of those who live on such an often bleak, brooding terrain. Duet of clarinets, then bassoon darkly gave second subject its final say. Cellos, horns shamelessly with great richness lustily ushered in chutzpah that ensues almost to point of irony – perfect! Even with the irony infusing this, this was meant unbuttoned with absolutely no remorse. As for this taken back critic, especially recent phase Norrington is perhaps worthy of re-evaluation.

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