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 1, 2009

Proms Artist Preview: reviews of 2006 (Nott)/2007 proms

Looking non-dogmatically toward the period movement, Fischer took an emotionally, often texturally lean approach to Symphonie fantastique. He left nothing at the surface, in doing so. Eschewing sentimentality in the first two movements ultimately made so much sense, in revealing passions in how they instead can so seethe or boil underneath. All nuance needed was there, but in such a way of how it relates to what comes next or to the whole, as opposed to how we as listeners anticipate being satisfied with what is expected to happen in the first pages of for instance the first movement. Strings maintained a fine sheen for a highly lyrical, febrile Scene aux champs. Woodwinds sounded particularly exemplary here and in the finale. Fischer, without rushing a thing, maintained a clear eye on where trajectory of the narrative in front of him was headed throughout.

Understating bombast in both Marche au supplice and finale was key numerous times for assuring a riveting theatrical response throughout all sections of BBC Wales. (Far cry from this - Deneve’s bombastically stodgy ‘fantastique’ at the 2006 Proms). Frequently obscured flute parts above loud brass one place in the march were clear. The clarinet’s idée fixe at the end of the march, as heard way off in the distance, was heart-rending, and its first galloping entrance in the finale, as though really hurtling toward the abyss. ‘Church brass’ matched church bells spectacularly in the finale. Fischer made such a gutted landscape of the finale at times, as to raise environmentalist concerns. He capitalized on every nuance, separation for the maximum crackling humor and/or visceral effect it could have. One could hear how this music must have really unsettled its first audiences.

Nott/Bamberg SO Inge Dam-Jensen - Rihm, Schumann (Grimaud - not reviewed), Mahler

This prom, one of most unusual interest and timbres, opened with a tone poem called Verwandlung (Transformation) by Wolfgang Rihm. A fascination with manipulation of form and motifs pervades this piece, revealing that Rihm may have much new to say. His drawing upon German romantic roots in this piece is no less astute than his earlier spartan emphasis on alternating single notes and sonorities. In fact, in Verwandlung, there is much provocative alternation between these two tendencies.

After nearly a whole minute of varied alternation on a single held G, the orchestra begins what could seem to be a fairly conventional passacaglia, but one that quickly grows more complex and a little frenzied, almost to the effect of ripping itself apart, and yet with alternating episodes of calm or of a pastoral mood, especially for extended duos of strings, winds, a beautiful concertato of winds - a hint of Stravinsky as much as of late German romanticism. With what passcaglia still in the mix, its motion of intervals eerily in the strings slows down considerably, then accompanied by a very soft off-beat repeated note in percussion, that grows more irregular then aggressive on downbeat, breaking in and receding as it goes, recalling the neo-primitivism of Conquest of Mexico. (opera). String sonorities are also enhanced by break-ins of brass chorales in whole tone harmony and insistence of a very brief melodic motif of a whole tone, itself briefly intruded on once by an invasion of bongo drums. Nott, with supple command of his Bamberg Symphony forces, gave this piece a sure command of its contrasting force and intimacy of expression.

The concept of memory being an essential function of music, and to paraphrase Rihm, the need not to hide behind technique for a most desirable economy and transparency of expression inform Nott’s way with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Nott is acutely engaged with many minute expressive demands asked for by Mahler, stripping them of an often casual enveloping of such expression that can so obscure so much. Such is also a very risky approach, but it mostly payed off here. The emotional stoicism and eschewing of sentimentality might bring Klemperer to mind – the purely songful opening to the long slow movement, and the quicksilver nuance, open parody and rhythmic animation Scherchen.

Nott was in no mood to apologize or to carefully conceal or envelope the event of so many macabre effects in this music, or the both often garish and offhanded humor of so much of it. In fact, early, gently insinuating portamento in the string lines came off so sly as to anticipate some dark transformation around several corners later on. Ensemble could on purpose get a little rough, just for Nott to get precisely what he wants, several times. Woodwinds, a little sour in intonation occasionally, get really into it, with their insistent chattering, even just of accompaniment at times, and to so much macabre and garish effect in the Scherzo. Pacing throughout this symphony was a little on the brisk side, except for simply moderate pacing of the slow movement. The goal here has become the lieder fourth movement at the end of the symphony, as opposed to its sounding tacked on to three preceding standard movements. With both its dark motifs in text, all has to do here with a streamline of animal slaughter among the saints up above, and in music. Nott conducted it very straightforwardly. Inga Dam-Jensen, with her fruity sound, momentarily blowsy, captured the childlike wonder of the text in simplest, most unadorned but freely expressive manner, and with Nott bringing the Mahler to a close of utter simplicity, in place of the sophisticatedly or obviously sublime.

London Sinfonietta, Susanna Malkki - Boulez, Birtwistle

Usually when faced with a program that features a divertimento or serenade of sorts, then a set of madrigals, the idea is one almost purely of light discourse. Well, think again. The discourse in both pieces on this program is broken up such that the whole concept gets completely redefined. Susanna Malkki’s highly auspicious debut prom was truly of the cerebral variety, especially were it not for the vitality that went into the Birtwistle that ended it.

Boulez’s Derive 2 sounded loosely to be in three movements, in its 45-minute span, in presumably its completed form. The question that came to mind, on first hearing this piece was, was this the same enfant terrible who shook up the radical fifties, with his treatise, ‘Schoenberg ist tot?’ Well, just almost ‘tell me it is not so’, but the unabashedly diatonic uses of his row at times was a little eyebrow raising a few times; the baroque dance rhythms and even a little inculcation of mellow, dry humor was refreshing, but all somewhat recalling the Schoenberg of Third Quartet and Opus 31 Variations. You though have a fine, very tightly organized composition, highly sophisticated in its manipulation of time and that sends a constant current of activity, either through repeated notes or much scurrying accompaniment through even most seemingly still passages. Use of tropes (in form of melisma of six or seven notes), some of which vaguely recalls the hemiola technique of extending the beat over the bar line in Brahms, to highly expressive passages, was always very effective. Work for solo instruments or duet could a few times spin out at length most intimately, especially in the slow middle section of this piece. The third movement sublimely, and quite Bergian, synthesized all elements that had preceded it, and thus favored this music in making it seem a little less diffuse. A little more edge to very supple, confident work by Malkki and her forces may have brought what may be ‘light in august’ for by now a more quietly radical composer of our time to us a little less recessively. Mastery of color, whether in delicate harmonies or light percussion effects mixed with winds, etc., was complete.

Extended melisma writing found its way in entirely different context into the Birtwistle, and equally vocal in effect here, whether from winds or voices. All the text Birtwistle needed was there, but on purpose, was not able to be clearly heard, and to the intended effect that work for eight winds should be equally indicative of text wordlessly of course being set to music, and contrariwise, though hardly in any concrete way, the singing to portray in effect natural processes. The deep color of cimbalom and of often seemingly menacing chant gives this piece quite a kick at times, not to mention the expressive and range extremes to which Birtwistle sometimes scores especially woodwinds. Start and end of all madrigal fragments often got completely blurred, overlapped, but the drama all the same was clearly felt, and thanks to the cultivation, courage, and indefatigable vitality of all forces involved. This was a great prom.

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