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, December 12, 2009

A Gallic undoing of Marek Janowski with RSO Berlin

Philharmonie Berlin 09.12.2009. Lisa de la Salle. Debussy "Jeux"; Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2; Franck D Minor Symphony

Marek Janowski is someone who I have always reckoned to be perhaps a couple of cuts above what we would deem a good Kapellmeister – someone whose work in the opera house has caught my attention more often (as from a few Met broadcasts, I surmise) than in the concert hall. I do recall a Salome with Eva Marton in which he was described, since things were not going so well that Saturday afternoon, as having conducted it with his head buried in the score almost the whole time – and on his part, all went by efficiently enough. He recorded a complete Ring for Eurodisc almost thirty years ago, with Rene Kollo very desirable for the part of Siegfried in it, and if memory serves me correctly, in optimum form as well. Jessye Norman and and a young Siegfried Jerusalem were his two Volsungs. Theo Adam repeated Wotan from doing it with Bohm years earlier.

As also music director of OSR (Suisse Romande), he chose a Gallic program (most if it 19th century and by one composer actually Belgian, showing a certainly comfortable level of German influence still) here.

“Jeux” by Claude Debussy opened the program. Before doing some more extensive looking at the score, I deemed this to be an almost quite respectable performance of it – after the carnage on it I heard from the Proms last summer (London PO, Jurowski); it actually turned out not being significantly better than perhaps one would expect of a Dallas, Indianapolis, or Baltimore (in its current state) over here. A clean enough understanding with good pacing to it all, of form was apparent, but hardly more to cut beneath the surface than just that. Janowski revealed sense of how to display a little sheen over proceedings, but with meager depth to it all underneath. What suppleness one should expect, variety of attack, free floating arabesque, all of which to help articulate form, was weak, and conspicuously so. This was so especially when one had the sense of there beginning to be (layers of) textures starting to clot - and with clipping that would take place intermittently. Cascade of arabesque through episodes marked 'Joyeux' got rendered stiffly.

There were likely a good number of notes dropped as well. Except in glibly ascetic way, there was little about this ‘Jeux’ to have been able to construe out of it anything potentially sensuous really. RSO Berlin string tone was often a little too thin for especially such good of this music. Even near point where music achieved climax, things seemed workaday, with overt sectioning off of different strands of activity - what should be subdued. Chromatically led English horn in anguished line and answering duet in clarinets and three parts cello section rhetoric was all unyielding and lacking in nuance moments before the crest of the entire piece.

Lisa de la Salle then joined RSO Berlin for the G Minor Piano Concerto by Saint-Saens; it would seem that for orchestral forces at work, we should then be on more stable ground. What de la Salle might a bit prematurely call austere for her age, of 20 or 21, came across as rhetorically unyielding in the solo introduction to the first movement. A certain grandeur and poise to profile, which would not prevent it from being austere so much as from being two-dimensional, was lacking. Orchestral response was then stiff and a bit muddy; an unyielding character to it all got carried over into accompaniment to the real principal theme of the movement. Such lacked both nobility and character, of what passed between soloist and orchestra. A good clarinet solo rounded off a more shapely appoggiatura laden second theme, but spontaneity out of some virtuoso flourish from de la Salle into brief Development got undercut - much there continuing on as routine, flat-line as usual thus far.

De la Salle’s angularity on short flourishes of sixteenths coming off main theme of the Scherzo, just deft enough, I found a bit crude and mal–apropos. Some lift got picked up into the swaggering second theme, but as found or observed dutifully instead of spontaneously. Retransition, sequencing approaching an overtly precious quality in starting the recapitulation quickly became block-y, in projecting a not so interesting argument of working things out – less interesting than is the tunefulness and charm of this music just in and of itself. Start of the finale, taken just moderately fast, sounded immediately awkward in coordination and leaden. Expected contrasts in orchestral backing of soloist proceeded so routinely as hardly to be noticeable. Trills on second theme started incisively, but all became too strict over proceeding chorale in winds. Recapitulation started off not together at all and de la Salle’s articulation of light flourishes in upper treble register was vulgar in how she stridently clipped a couple of them. Unvarying tone quality from soloist and ensemble problems riddled the remainder of this.

A too unyielding pulsation in left hand and eschewed nuance in playing for encore of the C-sharp Minor nocturne of Chopin (Opus 27, No. 1) compromised the nobility of line that de la Salle validly sought in getting its message across. Ascending, descending run in right hand met with well calibrated nuance, but for full maturity in playing this piece, more subtleties than for just overtly special moments in it still elude de la Salle somewhat.

A brooding feeling of opening the slow introduction to the Franck D Minor Symphony was just about right, but then to hear so little come of this in how things spun out from there was most disconcerting. Violins forgot to hide being aware of downbeat or bar-line as their tremoli got underway, in building together with the rest what emerged as an overall gray sonority to all. Soggy articulation and intonation quickly became apparent from the winds and often continuously dragged down what continued as a moderate to briskly paced rendition of the Franck. Accelerandi into ritornello statements therein then felt layered on – and at being so unimaginative as such, not marked in the score to occur at all anyway. Uncharacteristic for Franck’s music and of any good German orchestra playing it, string textures frequently sounded dry and thin, if not occasionally precariously so – in for instance doubling line fortissimo sostenuto line (as marked) and thus also underneath abetting propulsion for louder half of the second theme group to Allegro sections of the first movement.

Rhetorical sweeping lines from the violins marked fortissimo ma cantando projected routinely during the Development after previous portion of this section had started to lend things some lease on life. Accelerando, making way into the recapitulation fractiously sounded stodgy to point of being silly – certainly as not having been stirred up from within. Winds accompanying a start-up to the recapitulation that lacked sufficient fortitude emerged Fauntleroy-esque – a trap within this passage anyway. Jabbing repeat note trumpets on A, certainly marked loud but far less interesting than brooding progressions from lower reaches across all three sections of the orchestra, got more space than did the rest. Priority for clear downbea, for the bar-line to be demarcated emerged as obvious in reach for the closing peroration to the first movement.

Cesar Franck could have been construed to have traveled as far as Basque territory for how guitar like hard strumming on harp introduced the second movement. Violins here sounded at least rehearsed well for their triplet tremoli throughout most of this. English horn was flat and lacked nuance for trying to shape his lines. A reticent French horn replied, uninterestingly bearing down on his lines as well. Shape to flowing second theme emerged impulsively and with weak effort at remaining together with second violins, as though all generated on the spot. Dotted rhythms for sinuously wistful lines in the winds were loose enough to contrive that there might be a slow waltz afoot in more like triplets at times than dotted rhythms that violins repeated later with dull color and shape to it all. At least, Janowski was prudent to keep textures light for this - his violins reasonably well rehearsed.

Lean, but dull shape characterized opening tune to the finale, though gunned sufficiently on opening accents. Alluring second theme on trumpet-led brass was simply not together. Reminiscence of music from preceding movements happened matter-of-fact and reprise of main theme of the finale even started to become monotonous as Janowski left it glib for us what in harmonic impetus might be generating each reprise of such lean grandeur and poise. Textures remained light, but final recall of opening introduction to first movement was all flat-line, with harp arpeggios observing their bar-lines between them, with impetus to fine band-y conclusion to all that had come before.

Somehow, it all sounded like a diminution of what Cesar Franck might have really had in mind. French music, with the Barenboim Carmen that now sounds heavier on youtube tracks or even Furtwanglerian indeed, misapplied of course, has received less than optimum representation this week from originally two different sources. As for judgment call to make on the overall situation with what ensembles have both gone by RSO Berlin, it is prudent to leave such consideration still a bit open until chance to have heard a little more from what is reported upon here.

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