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, September 27, 2009

BBC Proms 2009. - Proms 73 and 74 - Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Most and Zubin Mehta

One might think ‘easy sailing’ from here – the Vienna Philharmonic on Haydn, Strauss, Schubert, Brahms. Well, as it says in Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Franz Welser-Most, stepping in on short notice for Nikolaus Harnoncourt switched choice of Haydn symphony for his prom from fifth to the sixth of the ‘London’ symphonies – 98 in B-Flat Major. It opened with somewhat portentous solemnity - with sagging cadences and odd funkiness with dotted rhythms anticipating start of the Exposition. Tutti were simply big-band here with heavy buildup to second half of the Exposition and sloughed off series of turns toward closing same section with quasi-period clipping of Haydn’s rhythms therein too just mixed right in. Welser-Most managed to tighten ensemble for the mostly fugato development section, but then while into the recapitulation punched already stuffy accents. Welser-Most, like many others before, missed the humor of horns underpinning final return of the opening statement – consistent with so much else missed as well.

Curiously sloughed off too was the opening of quite Andante like Adagio to follow. Triplets, for purpose of getting them light, quickly lost shape. As a result, the sublime lyrical second subject opened tentatively and then continued with weakly conceived consequents within continuing line. Violins were a little too much louder than lower instruments carrying theme beneath into the Development, resulting in disproportionate balances. Restatement of opening lines was casual, flabby, over straight line through stately octaves in cellos. Horns benevolently assisted violins with shaping the second theme, as though VPO strings should ever be in need of any props – found here working way toward precious closing they gave one of the noblest of Haydn slow movements – composed just after news arriving of the passing of neighboring younger genius.

Third movement minuet was taken impatiently fast - period clippings and hiccoughs paprika’d in, I suppose, to spice Haydn up a bit. Haydn however caught up with Welser-Most in tripping him up at his own game right before the first double bar. Single beat timpani announcement of arriving at last cadence in the minuet, with Welser-Most, before catching himself, made for epitome of incurable over-emphasis at this one fine, exquisite moment. Welser-Most had also just brushed off due emphasis on the interesting harmonic changes that happen in the Development (of the Minuet). VPO principal bassoon understands phrasing for the trio section, obviously better than did Welser-Most here. Welser-Most steamrolled his way through interjecting string octaves and then hit return of Minuet more loudly, more vulgar than sufficed two minutes earlier.

Welser-Most characterized well both main themes in Exposition of the rollicking finale, while clipping phrase endings to the first of these; he also in-between got more interested in grace-note offbeat octaves in brass than in the carrying line above. Repeat of Exposition became more vulgar instead of less. A VPO concertmaster led Development heavily, and then imitated Welser-Most to perfection on how to badly phrase the first subject. Light, jangling fortepiano matched awkwardly with all the rest - with final descending runs getting steamrolled.

The Schubert ‘Great’, seemingly so in length here more than in anything else, even at moderate tempos and overall reasonable length, started off stolid with mater-of-fact straight line through principal horn solo, which cellos fortunately responded to better than they heard. Lower brass entered Brucknerian in weight, mildly inconsistent with finer limning of what had just transpired. After only a slight accelerando, the Exposition opened with heavy jaunt to it. Ensemble turned tentative for bridge theme, with just passable attempt to give this passage some lift. Certainty with placement of accents then began to drift, out of which bulge developed toward final cadence thud and lumpy accenting into the Development. By time of re-transition, one had enough flab hanging out to remind one of Celi - with lean, refined looking Welser-Most on podium instead. Command of the beat got lost, only to be almost apoplectically regained a moment later, during bridge, after inconsistently light step to open the Recap. Speed-up in sequencing brass for the coda was scherzo-esque, layered on, helping anticipate heavy clipping of final excitable return of opening horn call.

Welser-Most’s continuation of liking his Schubert practically almost two different ways at once, even switching ways at times midway through phrases persisted through first two-thirds of a slightly breezy, glib Andante con moto. This continued so before insisting on more focus to proceedings for most all that proceeded from sturm und drang climax to this - just adequate here - with straight pitch trumpets drowning out more important end of line at cadence at this nodal point. Intonation issues from within the VPO had already begun to become apparent. Nevertheless, after soggy attacks and flat-line phrasing, Welser-Most got things more focused, flexibly back on track well before close to this - feature of these last five minutes missed most of what would then come.

A lumpy, stodgy rendition of the Scherzo followed. Opening wind chord failed altogether to speak over accompaniment at one point of reprise during the trio section. Inability to resist going for making something epic every time out of steady, ascending rush up quasi-stretto sixteenths in heavily octave doubled strings was also characteristic - each time the lissome second theme would be on verge of making arrival. Idiomatic gentle soft grass down accenting and line for the second theme was followed by increasingly jerky swing and sway to alternating ascending, descending half and quarter chordal notes. All repeats were taken, which had me remind myself of endless Scherzo in a 1991 Houston Eschenbach Schubert Ninth that had me scrawl down a note to friend about Alfonso and Estrella having had a few and thus having started singing for far too long (after which we joined each other in muffled laughter as the music played on). Same applied here. ‘Alfonso and Estrella’ made visitation on this Schubert Ninth as well.

Disorganization, stodginess persisted infamously into the finale, as it had on mentioned local occasion as well. I actually attended a much better Schubert Ninth with lesser orchestra here three years earlier than Eschenbach’s under Michael Gielen.

Recapitulation, starting momentarily in this movement in E-Flat, had a late-Celi(bedache) sag and wiggle to it - quite funny, humorous in fact. Rhythms, accents were crude, phlegmatically conceived throughout. Strings of the VPO did their valiant best to hold on through this – no casual feat on their part - but it became obvious that fatigue was setting in, with woodwinds sounding a bit whiny, wheezy before end of scherzo. Transition into the coda was good, making one hope for some restraint from the podium; alas, things less than a minute later turned into the usual shouting contest one might expect of orchestras among second or third tier –and whoever conducting them. Violins held on, reminding us that this was still the Vienna Philharmonic, but as part of progress to all this ending in numerous loud thuds, through final chord. Frankly, I do not know how they still maintained sounding like even modern-day Vienna to the end; fortunately they sounded more similar to their former selves under Mehta the following evening.

Passacaglias are not quite Zubin Mehta’s strong suit, but his flexible command of same forces as above guaranteed acceptable performances of both the Webern and finale to Brahms Fourth book-ending this program. A little sag to flute obbligato during first variation of the Webern so early hinted at somewhat uncertain conception of this music, but as anticipating anything to fear that fortunately went partly unfounded. Control of dynamics was good, violins supple and not quite dripping with melos, but internal rhythm through early marking of ‘belebend’ became bland - with contrast in dynamics during fifth variation also undercut. A gently broad treatment, alert to colors to be able to deftly draw from the Vienna Philharmonic, characterized most of the Webern, so if one wanted more interpretative specificity and sharper formal demarcation lines drawn, one had to look elsewhere. It was also clear here that both Mehta and the VPO had been around the block on this piece a few times before and thus had credibly opened their prom together with this piece. Transition out of lightly gilded lyrical episode in D Major was circumspect, though starting with slightly questionable tuning from high strings; concertmaster solo later emerged sweet as fully expected, idiomatically so

Zubin Mehta’s suave way with the Vienna Philharmonic benefited him more with the Strauss, here the tone poem “Don Quixote.” The guileless innocence with which Strauss starts out was caught close to perfection; even if Mehta got a bit stodgy with two or three heavier passages later on, his doing so did not remove much from the rest of what he and the VPO accomplished here. Transitions through the Introduction – before soloists enter – were handled with light hand and aplomb, including through passage for gaggle of militaristic sounding trumpets. The supple ardor with which the strings followed this was, as expected, further reassuring. Muted horns, with great sense of parody, were pungently bucolic; the threat of some menace intruding upon things right before solo entrances got conveyed as broadly as would suit matters just fine.

Principal cellist Tamas Varga entered with ruddy tone and profile, finding more rounded tone and warmth for both affectionate lines that follow and easy exchange with the Sancho Panza of principal viola (Christian Frohn). Very well played duet between basset horn and tenor tuba disarmingly gave off a fine bucolic old-world regality to its affectation. Quixote was found tossed off his horse in quicksilver reaction to horse taking fright - all lightly, incisively put - at the windmills. Shepherds’ calling out to sheep - with the variety of noises sheep make - Mehta gently goaded to graphically make very colorful case for the second variation, thus the fright they take while under attack certainly sounded palpable and so raucous to indeed be sheep. Alternating chant and chatter of Virgin statue carrying priests, two variations later was equally onomatopoeic, full of most incisive parody and wit.

Christian Frohn’s playing of Sancho Panza, on viola, played acting into his part jquite well, with despondent reaction after two disasters so far for his Lord, and then complete gain or restoration of confident air and poise. Such poise framed so well the Don’s expansive rhapsodizing over Dulcinea - so warmly put across here. Varga played the deeply pensive fifth variation with increasingly probing, broadly paced introspection. This passage may have somewhat marked a turning point for Mehta and his approach to the tone poem, in that this music took on a heavier, self-conscious air, even through dramatically etched portrait of the Don attempting flight through the air (Variation 7) - lavishly evoked here. Much was also made very characterful of the pungent drops of water dripping from clothes and gristle of the Don and Pancha’s chins as they recuperated from the sinking boat incident. Rustically played basset horn quote in full relief of Sancho Panza tune heard earlier returned things to perspective; the finale with twilit atmospheric hues and evocation of hero at peace eloquently held sway to the end.

Here was Strauss that did not attempt plumbing any philosophical depths with it as may have, so accomplished at it, the Luisi Alpine or Nott Zarathustra during earlier weeks. Even though noisy streams can run a bit shallow in Mehta’s Strauss, his way with it here at least bespoke good success, long experience with this music and won from the VPO a response of generous warmth and flexibility. The VPO made fine show of their suave virtuosity and moreover of strong, unaffected wit that pepper a good number of passages of arguably Strauss’s finest tone poem. Quite inarguably, it represents Strauss at his most humane and affecting as well.

With subtly weighted accents, Mehta started the Brahms Fourth Symphony as supple, lissome, and poetic as he promised in interview, bringing out the wistful, autumnal colors of this music - so very well vocalized too. We were already clearly at outset of the finest performance of orchestral Brahms for the entire festival, among three given this year. Several flaccid accents getting into bridge section of the Exposition momentarily slight inattention. Once the violins began their long arched line through this, Mehta’s shaping, with tiny break between A and G high up gave perfect shape and elasticity to much effortless legato playing in his employ. Woodwinds emanated a softly glowing fine shape through the second theme preparing a well-gauged climax at end of section if slightly holding back more excitable anticipation thereof. Mehta’s grip on rhythmic shape continued both flexible and secure, working in gradual buildup to still much ahead.

Flexibly molded line through G-sharp Minor duet of clarinets emanated fine melancholy thus it strongly framed re-transition to follow. The Recapitulation then emerged in fine relief, anticipating buildup of mood through it so atmospheric and ominous at once. Without elucidating great command of intellect in approaching Brahms, Mehta clearly proportioned coda to the first movement, bringing it to a fine, well churned up conclusion.

Mehta’s start to ‘Andante sostenuto’ elicited well honed mix of solemnity and supple line. Contrast between violins’ ascending line and pizzicato underneath continued to reveal very supple command of all at stake here. Minor issues with achieving complete finesse here emerged intermittently. After what had been heard the previous night from the VPO - with projected accenting then - anyone would’ve had to be churlish to complain about this Brahms. Strings achieved fine sinew to their lines through agitation to follow, even if with violins a bit heavily approaching their singing out of a few lines. Often ominous episode in coda was played light, wistful without it becoming bland, Mehta saving more ominous accents for the rich shaping, strong framing he gave ending phrases here.

Sense of occasion increased with festive, robust rendition of the scherzo, with fine spring to its rhythms, only bringing out flutes slightly too incisively at one point. Even late in the day here, Mehta still found more than sufficient lightness for reprise of the second theme that instead can get so jerked around by those less prudent at it. Luftpausen’d stretto toward the very end of the scherzo did not weigh things down. Contrast in color between sunny flutes and dark, burnished brass informed a well guaged re-transition at halfway point and calibration of both rhythmic spring and trenchant quality to partly ominous triplets building up to a practically, naturally bursting at seams conclusion.

Unqualified success with this Brahms Fourth ended with the scherzo, but some measure of success still persisted through the finale. Even so, the passcaglia got off to a start a little off-kilter that took wind concertato through third variation to restore equilibrium. Mehta intermittently cut excessive slack two other places before an otherwise very well prepared ideally wistful, tragic flute solo. Keeping bathos at bay as well, horns intoned their lines with fine depth and nobility. Mehta risked losing focus at end of reprise of the main theme, coming off this; beautifully gauged string tremoli quickly intruded to keep things well and alive. Mehta won on allowing, risking some slack for following agitated stretto variations, finding also incisively Mendelssohnian lightness in concertato triplets from VPO winds. It was only during the coda that Mehta mildly suffered loss of focus, even while building a satisfyingly tragic conclusion to this.

Coming off very musical, if not most profound way with E Minor Brahms, now being played on tour through Japan with stops in Seoul and Shanghai, Mehta and the VPO exuded - instead of streamlined breathless punch - out of Lightfoot and Tritsch-tratsch by Hellmesberger and Strauss, a far more irresistible obviously infectious joy in playing them - irresistibly Vienniese – such as I did not know Mehta could incite so well. It provided fine reason to bring all in attendance to their feet. After what sounded worse-than-most the night before – no pandering attempted toward the Brits here – the moment for such exhilaration had indeed arrived.

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