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.

Monday, September 7, 2009

BBC Proms 2009 - Proms 61 and 62 - Jansons, Concertgebouw

Magdalena Kozena (Duparc chansons). Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Mariss Jansons. Vesko Eschkenazi, Liviu Prunaru, leaders. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 31, September 1, 2009.

With Mariss Jansons, concerning especially the first two symphonies of the great Finn, one has sensed often a taste for the iconoclastic - as one might assess more brash or wannabe than really effectively breaking with anything much. Among Sibelius’s first several symphonies, it is the First that, from anything that had come before it, shows the most progressivism, notwithstanding moments in the Second and Third Symphonies – moments in the Third that momentarily anticipate highly unusual genius with the Fourth.

Concertgebouw, when they have done Sibelius before, have tended to do so with qualified reserve. Whether in part as replying to just or unjust criticism of his Sibelius, tendencies of Jansons’s Sibelius familiar before were still there, more circumspectly so this visitation. It could have been to better achieve effective grasp at last of the larger picture or perspective.

Clarinet tone was deep, soulful to open the first movement, but with nagging there to be perhaps some gap underneath. It still should not get heavily enveloped, but perhaps somewhat out of which in somewhat igneous manner the jagged opening theme of the Allegro energico body of the first movement can freely emerge. It did so, much more circumspect certainly than on earlier occasions, with rhythm and shape more intact now, but also phlegmatically this time around. More, swaying lyrical consequent to this got back phrased, and swoops up in rapid sixteenths to tutti reprise of main idea muddied, covered up.

Exposition closing statements were detached, verging on breaking the music apart, such as common to earlier Jansons renditions of this, but obviously without the jagged impetus that had preceded what occurs here before. Animation of dancing woodwinds spinning about was strong, but with under-girding ascending runs in lower Concertgebouw strings weak – not good for reputation based on many years of tradition for this orchestra. Framing of flutes, clarinet, horn during the second Tranquillo was lovely, merriment of wind concertato that then spins out perfectly bucolic, but Jansons denied climax for final agitated triple-forte descent in the strings by hitting accents too hard right beforehand, thus showing his mapping of the first movement coda to be found wanting.

Moderately paced, the Andante started off blandly, with retiring attitude for opening statement - with all for a while then proceeding in pleasantly direct manner and feeling for atmosphere. This was true most of all in the Molto tranquillo section for harp and violins’ accompanied bevy of horns. Overall shape to frame connecting episodes throughout however remained unclear. Cello line out of rhetorical recitative, both based upon first theme became soggy - with denatured clipped arabesque runs in descant woodwinds. Jansons then applied a check on vulgarity through stretti to follow - in such a way that made most of the remainder of the Andante careful, reticent, instead of peaceful and flowing - or as toward making definite resolution.

Outer sections of the scherzo emerged jerky, detached, without near enough driving this music from underneath, not overlooking fine contributions from woodwinds. What was found atmospheric in color with the Trio section was denied by thoroughly episodic grasp of how to render it shape; Jansons regrouped the retransition thus for it to be almost completely out of place with the rest - leading eventually to closing the scherzo not only flat-line, but that also gave us flat Concertgebouw brass - indicative of the ‘world’s greatest orchestra’ – under secure leadership evident here.

Horns just adequately anchored strong string section recitative to start this ‘quasi una fantasia’ finale. Other than some soggy playing in descending winds, the first Allegro molto, though bumpy from Jansons getting into it, was properly incisive. Shaping, coordination of line over long breathed ballade second subject proved awkward. Tchaikovskian strings' doubling of it for the recap sagged, proved on verge of total bathos, after efficient, but choppy, almost untethered negotiation of spirited enough fugato during the Development. So much was made out of every episode on last page or two of this Sibelius First that a potentially exciting ascent in cellos to help save the overall effort and bring it a broadly paced finale to a fine conclusion somewhat misfired. The clue, solution to this Sibelius First is in achieving some grasp of form, but nearly required as much vitality as has Jansons’ certainly misguided former approach, still half-alive, to this music. It is foremost in securing grasp of Sibelius’s individual mastery of form, that all can best come to life.

Concertgebouw, with deft ear for textures, got somewhat of a rest with set of Duparc that followed, as sung by Czech mezzo Magdalena Kozena. “L’invitation du voyage” proved languorous, but as a bit thick, pushed in production, hooty from Kozena. Support by febrile grasp of Duparc’s at times vague harmonies beneath the vocal line proved effective. Kozena lent “Extase” fine grasp of naivete, though with swallowed consonants - with horn solo alleviating some sogginess also in the accompaniment; the lovely postlude from lower winds at the end proved sufficient anchor to what had preceded it. Kozena’s manner with “Chanson triste” showed some want for better emotional intimacy, but for latter song, Concertgebouw provided opulent support wafting along through harp led accompaniment and lines in clarinet and horn. Kozena and Jansons both provided “Phydyle” subdued, debauched sense of the song’s smoldering eroticism, with Kozena’s voice opening out at last with the freedom one sought, soaring to affirmative G-Flat right before the end.

The Debussy Villon cycle excerpt, proved animated from both - well pointed in rhythm, color, Spanish charm - but “Clair de lune” (orch: Caplet) after the following Ravel proved perfectly amorphous, rhythmically distorted - enough to fully anticipate complete desecration of “Jeux” from the London Philharmonic so soon to come.

Fine grasp of birdsong from winds and other somewhat well gauged atmospheric effect was not quite enough to save an overall work-a-day, phlegmatic rendition of warhorse such as the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. Even with lack of specific shape to proceedings through much of this, textures were maintained self-consciously lean and mildly lacking in resonance. Emily Bynum played the long Pantomime with fine technical aplomb and fine animation, yet with slightly approximate accuracy of idiom. Jansons’ tweaking of accents, incisive moments came across as contrived at least as often as they might generate steam. Fortunately, Jansons spared organic development of “Lever du jour” opening portion of the suite from being too thrown off. Clarinet solo and other fine woodwind tracery through “Danse generale” did not suffice in saving it from much heavy docking in the brass, crude negotiation of arabesques of trumpet trios, and heavy clipping right before the end. Anyone could tell that most of this concert got played efficiently enough, but should not more be expected from Concertgebouw than this?

The second prom a little more surprisingly did not sufficiently respond well to, hypothetically speaking, such inquiry. Jansons provided the Haydn a fine introduction to its first movement, at least up until point of slightly ham-fisted cadence letting in the Allegro. Fine accenting from within of tempestuous episode right before and chortling bassoons and lift to consequents in the violins to graceful antecedents were all fully apt, toward setting things off. Charm of Allegro opening theme was intact, but regularity of ensuing pacing slightly careful, self-conscious in how much proceeded from there. Light marcia closing theme to both expo and recap was found not so coy to be over-the-top, but just adequately charming; contrasts, transitions through tricky Development section were marked well to be clearly heard and characterized. However, Jansons then rushed reprise of the opening theme, as perhaps to rationalize enforcing strong downbeats for following tutti of the same. Upward rapid flourishes in the violins were clipped during first movement coda. as to render them fully stylized, swooping quasi-glissandi.

Generous color and suavity of Amsterdam winds got the second movement off to a fine start, but one could already suspect here something insufficiently specific in shaping of its (deceptively) simple lines. Incisive trumpet call demarcated lines in the following Minore variation followed but for reprise of C Major, Jansons failed to avoid sag to the line and even risked eclecticism. Things from here on took turn toward being often alternatively stiff and flaccid in accenting - impetus to line in both tutti and concertato almost alike. Minuet and trio, taken moderately, Jansons gave excessive lift in proportion to its weight, and thus to the dignified, great noble feeling of nostalgia and poise that we are accustomed to thinking that this music at such pace for it should convey. With coy trim and clipped phrase endings, it could not. More forceful statement of opening theme, upon return after the Trio section, turned comical, that still in its aftermath failed to lend things more character - after alternatively excessively galante manner for and jerky, clipped transitions during the Trio.

For just slice or two of plentiful Haydnesque sleight-in-hand in nuance and transition to follow, Jansons settled for kitsch - or if you will, post-Shostakovich Ninth, post-Schnittke Haydn. Closing theme, especially during the recap, was door to modern day toy shop fully ajar, to practically high whistling vulgarity, including for comfort’s sake airbrush away of any potentially harsh sound effects. If without best shaping of its lines or true respect for Haydn’s rhythms, proceeding remainder of finale to Haydn’s ‘Military’ coasted along well – fine especially if this had been St. Louis Symphony Haydn instead.

Jansons during the early 1990’s recorded the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony in Philadelphia - arguably one of its finest several recordings the past forty years. Not as having blind allegiance to the first recording I have heard of a piece of music, I was first time I heard it, quite mystified, reminded well of an old Svetlanov on Melodiya - indeed the first Tenth I ever remember hearing. The broad shaping of the music’s ideas was similar, with making strongly etched ideas or dramatic points along the way. What made Jansons compelling then was the complete follow-through and inner vitality for it in having taken the approach he did.

With Concertgebouw here, I heard nothing so specific, though certainly reminded well occasionally – where things here succeeded most – of how it went before. First sign this time of less clear definition was that lower strings tended to sag when playing, repeating opening statement for the first movement – with violins and violas then at least firming things up in reply to lower strings repeating it. Jansons then suggested bloating the brief climax that ensues right before first occurrence of ‘waltz’ subject. A tendency to excessively underline and approach phrasing from retiring perspective turned mannered – in effect withholding confident shaping of the arch that frames the often fractious interior of the first movement.

Brass sagged on their forceful statement of the waltz subject, resulting in a brief trailing off of lighter trills seeming to have had the air taken out of it. Jansons understandably then leaned on things hard to achieve tight climax to the first movement - as though achieved organically from further back than it really had been. Coming off this, Jansons bulged – to remind one of Rostropovich - heavy unison straight eighth note rhetoric from the strings; focus on line resulted in being off again before another minute had passed.

Lower strings, rock solid, regained Jansons a surer footing through lighter duet of fine clarinets on ‘waltz’ subject, along with very fine searching piccolos in high register to nearly close the first movement. The nocturnal focus, character of the first movement, with terror from the immediate past reflected upon, got shortchanged here, as strings rhetorically inflected perhaps a strand of phrase line or two too much, too many again.

A measured, calculated approach curiously held sway for the following whirlwind of a scherzo. Jansons’ grasp certainly held firm, but then some of this music’s character was lost. Virtuosity of the Concertgebouw went unchallenged - such even to deny that this music is about much more than that. As played here, Jansons excessively understated the character of this music in being too careful, anticipating downbeats and overall being deliberate toward encouraging this music to generate a good head of steam.

Underlining, other marked gesture during the third movement made for a more detached, glib account of this music than usual. It seemed to be so for sake of uniquely pointing out such instead of for better than half of this having it depict overall state of mind, composure for picture in view. Rhetorical dragging of the first theme, clipped pointing, so chic, of concertato wind band right afterwards, distension of violin section led ritornello into back phrased climax toward end of movement all seemed to try telling us that if we should be able to fully appreciate the sophistication of the composer’s inspiration here, better perhaps to hold all of this movement at considerably more than arm’s length. We should be grateful for being so engaged as far as we have instead – such as held true too with Zinman in Schubert and Mahler a previous night. Not all sense of atmosphere, scope, character of this music was denied or got removed. Jansons though has already given us a much more unified perspective on this music on disc than encountered here.

Intonation somehow got lost on concertmaster and viola solos right before the close of the third movement, but woodwind solos opening the widely spaced landscapes that desolately open the finale were very fine. Jansons, before finding good lift, vitality, even simplicity for the dance rhythms of the vigorous fast section to follow, was inclined here to take so much a straightforward approach. It apparently led him to start rushing past crying laments of fine Concertgebouw winds and more obviously hurried ruminations from lower strings that demarcate them. Off-setting some streamlining of fast sections and after achieving fine peroration to so much agitation that has built up by this point, laments in the winds and mournful sense of loss in the strings received their full due. Jaunty reprise of Allegro first subject in low bassoon was equally apt.

After slightly clumsy landing to close the Shostakovich, Jansons followed up with a lugubrious, curiously episodic, detached account of Sibelius Valse triste - unclear as to what it should say, as was unfortunately much of this year's visit by Concertgebouw to the Proms.

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