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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - Proms 52 and 57: Gergiev/LSO and Robertson/BBC SO

Prom 52. London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Valery Gergiev. Elena Zhidkova. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 24, 2009.

One had to wonder, with what one might first learn about Schnittke’s cantata, Nagasaki - while on such a serious, even harrowing topic but composed just out of school with a certain naivete, what it might be doing on a program with the Eighth Symphony by Shostakovich. The Shostakovich Eighth can work very well on a program with something very contrasting to it – as happened on 1960 Leningrad PO visit with Mravinsky to London for its UK premiere – the Mozart Symphony No. 33. Regardless, Valery Gergiev and the LSO attempted the pairing they did and it partly worked. It also helped to listen to a piece even now new to most of us, though composed fifty years ago just as alone; it stands on its own well.

The heavy opening theme to ‘Nagasaki, city of grief” over organ chords and slow pulsating octaves in the piano, recalls, generally speaking, melodically, choral passages of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Arriving harmonically a semitone down from what has preceded it, an interlude of orchestral chorale in canon with horn obbligato makes one think of perhaps having heard the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony recently, though without specifically thematic allusions to it. From loudly declaimed ‘Nagasaki’ antiphonally marked by measures of straight octave sextuplets in the lower strings, breaks forth syncopated increasingly enhanced percussion writing along Stravinskian lines. The aesthetic overall still operates along lines of Shostakovich.

Gergiev brought out very well this music’s inexorable tread, with flexible shaping of lines in chorus and lyrical orchestral interludes, culminating in blazing writing shot through with Byzantine colored lower brass and three note motto above them in the trumpets - a flurry of oscillating sextuplets in flutes swirling all about. Provocative near end of the first movement, noting some sobering back up to C Minor as where this piece starts, is the bi-tonal chord (B Major/C Minor) with which the first movement almost closes.

The next three movements proved most compelling - third following the second with hardly any interruption. Antiphonal broken perfect fourths deftly spin off each other, amidst supple bright flourish depicting easier life before wartime. ‘Oriental’ color became distinct as also some of the quintuple meter writing or semblance thereof chorally hearkening back to wedding songs from Russian folklore - example to Rimsky-Korsakov in his operas. Contraltos gently spun out extended smooth line of fine simplicity, quasi-Italianate, in depicting the Orient. Shimmering alternating whole tone in the violins effectively formed haloed descant over women meditating wordlessly on parallel modally harmonized triads - punctuated ominously by drone from low trombone. Getting past gathering tension, Gergiev deftly made transition back to final glimpse of life unspoiled; after brief remark on celesta, a huge multi-layered chord seemingly arose from the deep.

Out of such highly dissonant meltdown arises well crafted an overall mood of outrage or protest s to hold sway amidst fugato and toccata writing hinting at Hindemith, Shostakovich and in percussive ostinato rhythms also Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements. In there remaining some drive to this, wisely just simply pointed out by Gergiev, this vitality left the listener with glimmer of hope, even while depicting something most harrowing. High trill over choral declamation of protest nightmarishly recalls similarly effective climax to first movement of the Shostakovich Tenth. A march in C Minor allusive to theme opening ‘Nagasaki’ abetted LSO chorus toward utterance of firm protest - as enhanced to pressing level by a two-pitch-descant b-itonaity Gergiev handled well. All then dissolved softly into a multi-layered, dissonant chord. Gergiev then delineated well the simple mostly repeat-note flutes ostinato as demarcated by occasional, strong detached piano chord for complete sense of frozen stasis here.

Schnittke did not stop in sculpting dignified melodic line for “On the Ashes” with genuflecting accompaniment as happens in Prokofiev’s Nevsky, but made orchestral involvement instead psychological in its own right. Elena Zhidkova sang this movement with requisite steady tone and noble reserve. Ostinato on theremin (electronic instrument) and picking up the mezzo’s lament on the same is harrowing, after grimace of pain from brass and wordless chorus. Ornamentation of line from celesta, winds, percussion is incisive, elaborate. In Gergiev’s hands it became deft and precise toward expressing what this music should say, attendant upon many expanded out layers of meaning. With such could not the authorities in charge been more specific.

”The Sun of Peace” finale, opening a semitone higher than the key it actually is in, C Minor, sounded clichéd at first, but steered clear of ultimately becoming oppressive as such. Promise of a well thought out, if not always most imaginative cumulation to all that had preceded this got confidently maintained here. The tragic sentiment, naivete of this music, its simple design, and elaborate musical mind in nascence but already absorbing so much could hardly have found a better advocate in Valery Gergiev here or anywhere.

The focus of this concert was to be still the Eighth Symphony by Shostakovich, or has it started to be played so often – as opposed to how things were thirty years ago – that it starts to become like the Fifth (or Seventh)? Cellos and basses opened the long-arch Adagio with fine rhetoric, though missing the double dotting of the motif that as stated has pushed them in. Meditatively taking on a long expanded second half of first subject, violins of the LSO found unforced means to make it deeply felt over crest of their lines. They still sounded a bit phlegmatic on their own restatement of the very opening but wisely without overstating the case. Contrast of deep musing on lower winds with acrid comments above from trumpets upon high got well delineated.

Gergiev treated coolly section with irregular phrase lengths marked Poco piu mosso, including on directly phrased ascending lines that according to personal tastes, could have used slightly more space. The chorale however that followed in lower strings and then with its repeat registered spaciously, reaching for deep recesses of focus and emotion as should occur here.

As the agitated middle section got under way, one sought just a little more intensity; such registered from the LSO this time as glib, phlegmatic with contributions from winds in high register being the exception. The ‘death-dance’ (Allegro non troppo) pushed forth urgently, but lacked ideally sharper rhythmic profile. Extended English horn solo coming off imposing climax was full, nobly expansive in its sorrow, rhetoric, this time without any Rostropovich learned underlining and excessive dramatizing thereof to carry over to an otherwise excellent Adagio last time the LSO played this at the Proms – under Bernard Haitink. Spacing of all that followed, including the still, peaceful close, was excellent, for Gergiev. LSO strings undercut here preparation for last ominous fanfares from duet of trumpets right before the end of the Adagio.

Slurred lower strings opening the first scherzo, octave doublings already present, felt a bit Tchaikovskian insipid here, giving piccolo double duty in making his part upon entering incisive enough without overstating it; he managed it famously so. Tricky shift to triple meter after fine calibration of high concertato of woodwinds came off very well too, managing to usher in the working up of a pretty good head of steam, somewhat short-lived, for reprise of the first subject eventually leading to understated case for close to this. The toccata that followed strongly suggested fear, relentless struggle from violas, but intensity seemed to go only just so far. Such was true too with slurred trumpet leading the trio section and phlegmatic negotiation of other material as main section resumed, leading to only approximately firm ending climax to this.

From this point on, all became close to spotless. Once a minute into the passacaglia, one felt as though one had at last been transported in full to world this music inhabits. If a Shostakovich Eighth can be most memorable for how all has transpired during its quieter moments, there then is ultimately little issue one can have with one winding up so, whatever might have felt shortchanged before. Other than principal clarinet starting off by missing dynamics slightly, this was a passacaglia without going self-consciously too slow, that caught all the rhetoric of it in full nobly so at moderate pace. All helped make, following fine contributions from all winds and hushed strings - a very still opening to the Allegretto finale.

In all the characterization that Gergiev gave every episode, he made something – it sounds oxymoronic – deftly Mussorgskian out of this, starting from naïve hurt expressed by bassoon - wounded innocence, simplicity at the core to the hilt - in halting step, imploring tone the LSO principal provided his solo. Equal at naivete, more animatedly so, entered the flute. Cellos reminiscing on B subject from the Adagio and menacing wind concertato registered as sobering up an atmosphere where not even near time yet for true relief or cause for real joy or feeling of successful release. Before start to an imposing fugato, the violins entered sharply with their incisive tavern dance as though unawares of what could always, was about to get stirred up again; mildly complicit in all that has transpired apparently has passively been the complacency of the Russian people. Again, Gergiev is right – here is as much Mussorgsky inasmuch as it is Shostakovich. Dynamics were perhaps slightly understated for shattering climax to come; it was all in the preparation that it still made one’s heart stop - that brought in as though unawares it would rear its ugly head again.

Bass clarinet, continuing dance from earlier, provided no consolation, neither did ‘tavern’ concertmaster, but then so very specific at last entered solo cello and concertmaster too with temporarily reassuring gesture. Right after, the concertmaster, the principal bassoon both sounded apologetic but as if to say, ‘for what?’ The close to the fifteen minute Allegretto was very still with concertmaster limning final ascent up to final C Major chord toward reaching a perfectly sublime state, a beautiful febrile stillness, but including with ominous warning from deep recesses of the LSO, clear sense of this still being an unstable or restive peace.

Prom 57. BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson. Stephen Hough, Steven Isserlis.
Royal Albert Hall, London. August 28, 2009.

How it happened that Concert Fantasy by Tchaikovsky could follow Agon on the same program was, as found here, truly confounding. Agon closed complete Proms survey of the eleven ballets of Stravinsky that had begun - using same orchestra as has Agon, with an incomplete performance of Petrushka (using the misguided concert version) weeks earlier under Belohlavek.

In Concert Fantasy, with its garden-variety usage of folk melody, with kitsch tambourine for entering dance in ‘Contrastes’ (second movement-finale), little ultimately gets said with extensively thorough technical display for the pianist, which Stephen Hough negotiated very well, as he just had also the First Concerto under Vasily Petrenko. The lightness was there where expected, but also the weight and guided rhetoric for the heavily chordal passages - awesome cascades up and down for the instrument, in display of Tchaikovskian ardor and elaborate sequencings bursting forth thereof.

It is with relief that remainder of this program was of material promisng more substance, starting even with Rococo Variations as played by Steven Isserlis. The neo-classical touch came across with near assured feeling for its own naivete. Isserlis’s tone tended to turn thin when faced with some of the daunting technical challenges his part poses for him. At such places thin to practically skittish support from Robertson and the BBC SO became order of the day. Variation eight of this piece’s original version was included here, with usual final variation coming in, Isserlis sounding stretched by it, instead as fourth variation. Though with less full than desirable tone – precariously thin especially at harmonics at the end of several lines – Isserlis smoothly limned the melancholy lament of third variation here in D Minor and then the rhapsodic poetry of the seventh, supported quite eloquently with supple hand from podium. Coda spinning off the original final variation however became simply too much - with at times more scratch than tone.

Concert Fantasy, as it turned out, did not only pair badly with Agon, but also ultimately with what closed this program two pieces later - both having fantasy in their full titles. The fantasy overture ‘Francesca da Rimini’ sounded little more substantial than just yet another concert fantasy here. The opening Andante lugubre with throat clearing, dry cellos and basses to usher it in became practically instead an Allegretto grazioso. No ‘lugubre’ was within sight or hearing range. So lugubrious was the breezy way with downward tread in cellos and basses, as though promised air ventilation equipped circles of hell beneath for thus far a Francesca closer to Oberon or Fra Diavolo than to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Robertson invoked in interview. In such context, the guilty Francesca and Paolo could have stepped closer to blast of wind to touch during their forsaking of good eternal destiny, given that its abrasive edge here sounded so airbrushed away as to register as little more than the gentle gust of a spring breeze.

High flute and other woodwind decoration, complete with Mendelssohnian grace and spree, of steady ascent up to forceful lite, quasi-athletic statement of Allegro vivo main theme succinctly fit right in. Brass, not playing excessively loud, covered the melodic line in dry BBC strings, making so many repeated notes sound more compelling than melodic line - inexorable sweep that one reckoned before should come with it.

The Andante cantabile interior Robertson taught us had it foregone conclusion that perhaps either the tenets of Christianity or of social correctness too had in time taught Francesca and Paolo that it might be better they never touch. What condemnation might ensue for just feeling lust instead of acting on it and bringing it to full fruition as sin I suspect must have gotten picked up from Protestantism. Tutti reprise of sad strain of clarinet introducing sadder episode than anticipated portended sorrow by our dear Paolo and Francesca to have probably missed out at least to full extent that for which they are condemned - for just to have only vaguely (or perhaps slightly more than that) felt it instead; all proceeded with greater oomph then, still tragedy lite, forward to an Italianate band-y brash conclusion.

The right place for Robertson to have put Stravinsky’s Agon was to follow Francesca da Rimini – Francesca as heard after Chairman Dances or Dr.Atomic - here, more apt, an Agon not quite as having been heard or conceived after Desert Music. All was lithe with this Agon; with Agon there is fortunately more than one way to skin a cat; there are indeed many ways. So wily a concept, Agon with its shifting levels of nuance and meaning among bridging works - competing with Canticum sacrum – leads the way from so extended neo-classicism to Stravinsky’s then too abbreviated late period of serialism.

Plasticity of line and gesture was everything in this Agon; what indigenous roots in which certainly some of Agon finds soil – I have not yet read Taruskin for how deep the roots might go - sounded as though mostly pulled up by now. In other words, if you have Taruskin on your shelf and think his way is how Agon should go – the other extreme - then you must have certainly been dismayed or struck dumb here. At the same time, I blithely found something a bit sexless about it all - now feeling like George sounding off to Nick and Martha about cutting of tubes in Albee’s ‘Virginia Woolf’ in so speaking up.

With contained feel for so much - thus then for purpose of score analysis Robertson might be ideal – ability to tap near any emotional core for this was more vague than norm. A firmer grip on connecting tissue through it all could have been useful. Tempos for Double pas de quatre and for the Pas de deux tended toward sluggish. Fleeting hints of Sacre du printemps and also of beasts of prey - just so far back as climax of Orpheus - were there - marked, but defanged. Sense of stasis during the Pas de deux was certainly somewhat apt, but there being little upon which we could concretely put our hands or feel. Robertson subtly gave account for transition from the diatonic to constructed world of serialism, aptly so, while delineating well occurring reference to jazz motifs in Agon. The undercutting of wet sensuous harmony, interplay for mandolin and harp, piano in Gaillarde automatically called for here an emulsion or humidifier.

I complained early during Proms survey of Stravinsky ballets issuing forth about it all several times being too safe, sterile – docile just about altogether. Agon is different than the other ballets. From the get-go, we assume meeting up with pure abstraction here, along with bad cliché of Stravinsky being charged thus. It is never anywhere near being so, but in a few subtle ways, but indeed may be easier to get away with it on Agon than again on earlier works. The passion, exuberance, vigor, grief and fragility of human existence are all on display here, even if framed relatively abstract.

Pierre Boulez, who may have mentored Robertson, described Tchaikovsky as threadbare (in inspiration). Even so iconoclastic, could not he better than Robertson, still have made something, if still different, out of Framcesca da Rimini?

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