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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - Proms 56 and 59 - Luisi/Stk Dresden and Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle

Prom 56. Staatskapelle Dresden, Fabio Luisi. Lang Lang. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 27, 2009.

A most auspicious debut at the Proms and much inauspicious return to the Proms are topic here.

First off for Fabio Luisi and Staatskapelle Dresden was ‘traces’ by Berlin based British composer Rebecca Saunders, protégé for a short while before of Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe. This was a study, sixteen minutes long, in sonorities, with minute adjustments to their pitch, dynamic, level of interactive response with other occurring strands. They so interact as to communicate as such, comparable in her thinking to vaguely alluded to text by Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, but moreover perhaps in their vague to quite metaphorical simulation of occurrences in nature. Luisi and his forces attended to task at hand with optimum care and precision. This would certainly call for repeat listening, as for what allusions one will pick up that might get missed the first time.

Interruptions of long held pitches, harmonics, overtones, what have you, by an isolated accent in percussion might be such to even recall the brief Ohio Impromptu of Beckett. It would be hard however to find any other specific allusions than that – not to risk getting insipid here. Needless to say and in manner that even gives impression of being even virulently fluid, this music does however speak, even in what a great extent allusive elements thereof are distilled to their very essence. As such, one will then hear them in this piece echo each other, overlap, oscillate around each other, with gaps suggesting that they far beneath the surface inaudibly continue to do so. That there was something to be gained from having programmed this became evident especially in the Strauss that followed later that had qualities brought out here, but thereby missed in performances lately of Mahler (see below), Tchaikovsky, and others. Brief, but fully reflective postlude followed a longer central movement, chock full of violent eruptions and feedback from them of varying focus, intensity, and scope, following five minutes of mostly calm six minute ‘exposition’ of a first movement.

Arresting about the Chopin right away was the first orchestral ritornello or actually exposition – how it got played here. One usually hears this music as too fully written out for the strings; Luisi kept ensemble tight and brought out colors and interaction from winds, with very fine command of rhythm and frame, that so much life was then breathed into passage and others that often land like a dull thud. At times if risk of taking such an approach is employed, it would then possibly make this music seem anemic instead, but not here. A possibly quick study with all this at the keyboard was someone for whom I have not expressed much admiration in the past – Lang Lang, in some of the best playing I have heard yet from him. He spoke in interview, as though fully convinced of what he was saying, about the operatic bel canto link (and passion) in Chopin’s piano writing; such did often emerge here most effectively.

There were still a few octaves and such that especially low were handled in such a way as to not quite ideally bring out their resonance – and those places, especially in filigree, where Lang Lang felt compelled to excessively gild or dovetail things. Subtle command of the French rhythm in playing Chopin is not quite there, but even so it is refreshing to hear what will hopefully grow some greater subtlety in his approach to Chopin, and thus that the broad brush thus far so common in Lang Lang’s playing and touch can start being put away at last. Speaking of command of French rhythm, one is led to think of how much it has been missed in half of the performances of Stravinsky ballets this summer (Volkov, Gardner, Karabits notable exceptions) and in dull Falla and Ravel the other night from Philharmonia and Salonen. There was fulsomely unaffected noble, introspective sculpting of Chopin’s melodies, to lead one to consider having underestimated Lang Lang's abilities and potential to further develop them.

The finale opened with mostly well sprung caprice, but including just playfully going over the top in clipping a bit ‘Oriental’- not especially Chopinesque – a few accented notes, light octaves up high. Bravura flourish, dauntless chord sequence arpeggios, in both outer movements tended most to ring true, as did a good share of the poetic rhetoric for middle placed ‘nocturne’ in the concerto. Lang Lang had in Luisi a superior accompanist and collaborator for precisely what he needed here – for encouraging what could be at last some emerging artistry from Lang Lang.

With no effort whatsoever, light so gradually emerged from darkness at the start of ‘Alpine Symphony’ by Strauss, as almost uncanny. One might have expected to get a little underlining of descending B-Flat Minor scales, but none was forthcoming. Once to ‘Sunrise’, the texture at this point was trumpet dominated, but with strings still emerging as clearly heard and in tune just slightly above, and with both at once clear direction to the line and full texture shot through with light – to scintillating effect. It was with such that Luisi and Stk Dresden, with cellos and basses’ lean take on Ascent embarked us not only on a hike up the mountain and back down, but one that took us deeper than this, as to the recesses of one’s own soul or being and how interaction with the natural world can live within most of all. This all happened without mysticism applied to this score from without – as for instance seems at times the case with early 1980’s Karajan concerts and disc – but as to be found solely from within. The opera “Frau ohne schatten” that Strauss wrote quite simultaneously with ‘Alpine’ I have already cited here.

‘Alpine Symphony’ is a score ornate with detail to practically hyper-Baroque proportions, - such detail that even the best orchestra in the world today might not be able to fully encompass – with moments too in this that are clearly over-scored. Without calling attention to anything but the music itself and what woven messages it may want to convey, the discipline of the Dresden forces and of Luisi’s interpretative acumen in taking so much on was highly exemplary.

The discipline with which this was all carried out was hardly at all the point. Transition through shadowy forest to clear and more airy scene by the brook proceeded in all a supple manner without any of this becoming slick or detached thus - with breezy, just slightly flagrantly garish downward chordal sequences in enhanced violins filling in perspective, suggesting first encounter with high elevations. Space was beautifully calibrated on meadow pasture for shepherd’s calls, clanking bells, and noise of sheep to all bucolically be heard in most natural and mysteriously engaging perspective. The almost bejeweled flooding ‘Dresden china’ waterfalls sounded arresting in their overlapping harmonies incurred in shadows hanging off them - all with great simplicity, sense of naivete.

Mozartean grace with sumptuous Flowery Meadows complemented the supple brooding eloquence with which Luisi so infused the reflective Elegy not long before Storm below; it also contrasted with prickly brass dissonances and caprice in winds for ‘Lost in Thickets.’ Luisi avoided all coyness as in dovetailing effects a la Disney. Calibrated so effectively, angry brass just started to crowd out tensile strings ‘on the Glacier.’ A little similarly found ensconced in thick underbrush were animatedly descending triplets through ‘Precarious moments’, suggesting in nature of the writing, a taking off in flight from one contrasting sphere to another - as for instance as taken on by malevolent Nurse in “Frau ohne schatten.” Luisi handled with great finesse the tricky transitional material to immediately follow that, amidst an atmosphere losing stability by the minute.

Luisi had his strings practically inebriated in response to heroic brass at C Major attaining of the summit, fulfilling tight scaling of it right beforehand. Lighter episode of thrown about shadows and light in “Vision” hinted at so airy a state as found during the peaceful closing pages of “Frau.” With fine, well calibrated preparation of all to follow, ‘Storm’ made a vehement impact while allowing in very telling shafts of light. In so heroically scaling the heights afterwards, Luisi may have been able to allow strings a little more space on upward scaling melismas; once attaining the crest of enormously extended and elaborate line, he had his strings playing as though possessed. It was with regret but no hint of bathos that things gently sank through organ benediction to somber depths from which all first arose, here near foot of the mountain past nightfall, or as though near end of life or on verge of a very long, deep sleep.

One had here not just the sensation of a great hike up the mountain - taking in so many sights - but as enhanced by such thoroughly idiomatic playing from Dresden, a much more encompassing experience. In Houston, we needed videos to enhance our ‘Alpine’, but definitely not here. With often lean, well sculpted lines throughout sections and internal nuance with color, sonority this in hindsight made the Saunders at outset seem entirely relevant by end of evening.

Had such Strauss from Luisi had been heard by more people here, the Met (New York) would not have scrapped ‘Frau ohne schatten’ from this coming season, in the great Herbert Wernicke production they own - so richly deserving of high definition exposure in our cinemas. Though Luisi will presumably conduct other Strauss instead there the coming two seasons, the Met still has greatly erred. One can only envy anybody so fortunate to have attended this - especially when it opened under Thielemann seven years ago.

Prom 59. Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman. Dawn Upshaw. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 29, 2009.

It was, after the Luisi, to come too far down to hear next prom or two coming so hard on its heels as they did. Mahler encountered earlier this proms has included a Ninth of great feeling and expression, though with mild tendency toward lugubrious at times, and an arched, angular Sixth that, though fiery in doing so, risked leaving perception of it two-dimensional. Nothing even so interesting as all this occurred here, though it goes without saying too that we had just had 'Alpine.'

In the name of ‘period’ perhaps, awkward, arbitrarily ham-fisted negotiation of the somber opening – here then too somber – opening of Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture got things off to a clunky start. Zurich Tonhalle wind principals delivered fine uncoached feeling, sentiment for their lines, but over unyielding goading from strings and podium. Strict handling of ritornellos in bridge from first theme to second during both halves of the body of the overture emerged almost as cross between pep rally and Biedermeier – with dry downbeats – noticed second time around – pseudo-enhanced by little swells on each of them. Other handling of thematic material was mostly adequate to coy; handling of ascending triplets in lower strings in the coda to this was so clumsy as to suggest full engagement in American vernacular to, anymore, hardly unexpected lengths - plenty vulgar for piece in question.

Poor man’s Berio followed in form of a set of Oswaldo Golijov transcriptions of four Schubert songs, as sung affectionately in good voice by Dawn Upshaw, with appropriately solemn opening to Wandrers Nachtlied, but with wonky diction and nuance of such – such as detached on repeat of the word ‘Schweigen.’ Exotic water-coloring of accompaniments came across as merely generic, insipid – nothing of real interest or persuasion. Before scooping the opening of ‘Nacht und Traume,’ “Das sie hier gewesen’, namesake of the arranged song cycle here, dragged on to exotically pretty but too saccharine filled length. Sentiment being too layered onto the surface of things and excessive breaks in line made the last two songs here seem to drag on to nearly twelve minutes, while in at just slightly over eight.

Such meager quality in being able to sustain line and avoid layering on, tweaking of the music for what could not be felt through and through excessively infused as well the Mahler Fourth Symphony. What point of view of the piece as given here remained unclear or completely vague. Such was true, other than at times to somewhat inflexibly and too carefully transcribe into sound Mahler’s instructions in the score, that is, while capable of staying faithful to them. Ritornello right before second theme and intrusions in on closing theme were strict to extent of denying each their sense of bucolic merriment, as though Zinman to be good at his Mahler, sophistication at it should be one distance removed from such considerations. Massage of close to first theme reprise ending to Exposition did not help matters, but horn solo for once was fine after ignored crescendo in concertmaster solo starting the Development section. String section negotiation of contrapuntal writing and of transitions therein vacillated between being too stiff and downright sloppy. Trumpet call preview of Mahler 5 segueing the recap, through alternatively clipping it and letting the line sag towards end lost all its shape - following enormous thud on timpani

Zinman unintentionally infused more parody into Mahler than already exists by having horns play more loudly their obbligato than line in the strings during recap of first theme. Even the French horn solo at the very close of the first movement barely rescued feeling from having altogether become too sniffy, precious at this point. There was achieved decent character from solos during the macabre scherzo, not lightly enough macabre to be disquieting really - with it slightly arbitrary whether to underline places therein or just have his Zurich forces just read through them. Display of how Zurich double-basses can play assigned increasingly wide interval glissandi was good but just seemed mostly to serve that purpose alone.

Pacing, structural grasp of the Adagio (‘Ruhevoll’) here was fairly solid and expressive limning of alternatively radiant and anguished lines in this pointed well numerous times. It all carried on however in manner of muzak right before the opening of the gates of paradise – opened by very awkwardly broken end of upbeat prepared downbeat. Line connecting episodes of the Adagio though tended to plod; negotiation of those episodes of sudden change of tempo to much faster, for sake of parody, seemed too careful by half. First-stand woodwinds provided most expressive relief for this in what otherwise for slack in the line seemed mildly slower pace than usual, but hardly was at all.

For greater attention to diction and infusing so many lines with childlike wonder, Dawn Upshaw sounded considerably more at home with the finale to the Mahler than with contrivance on program for first half of this concert. Her understanding of parody in Mahler in a way upstaged that of David Zinman a couple of different times here – element of such so understated earlier. Zinman showed up to be on same page with Upshaw on introspective modal harmonized interludes during this movement and gently undulating, just almost stumbling pace to the opening of the movement, as should be. Upshaw only overcooked things in beginning last stanza of the finale in too much the childlike manner; at this point, we have in Mahler the adult’s view of the child’s vision of ‘himmlische leben’, as music indicates here; what joy and spring she brought to ‘tanzen and springen’ and so much dance and parody with all the rest.

If, as an aside here, Royal Albert Hall reverb had perhaps been a bit thick for moments of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Zinman left more than room enough in his negotiation of textures of the Mahler, in that they are already better economized than in the Strauss; it was however the Strauss that became fully memorable this past week.

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At September 9, 2009 at 12:42 PM , Blogger Robert Spence said...

I joined the site, but I haven't posted anything yet--I probably won't this semester; I'm far too busy.



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