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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

BBC: Philharmonia/Salonen. Brahms/Berlioz program astutely highlighting diverging tendencies of Romanticism. Sergei Khachatryan. 10.6.10. RFH, London.

Esa-Pekka Salonen sounded engaged in interview to show us a new way of hearing Berlioz – and also to halfway fool us about how he might go about it. His very relaxed confident air in speaking so, after having spent too many years in Los Angeles, augurs well. What I have picked up from Salonen here and there over the past several years have seemed phlegmatic, reticent – not lacking in integrity so much as just simply not having much life. From hearing this, there certainly could be afoot better days ahead. Salonen made evident with docile classical frame to Symphonie fantastique a way rhetorically speaking, of sticking out a bloody thumb or gouged finger at just most opportune moment to make doing so very disquieting.

This was indeed a very good concert; Salonen, having emerged long ago from Jorma Panula’s class at Sibeius Academy, is certainly an eclectic in his musical tastes, interpretative tendencies. There is the romantic here, in terms of his concept of sonorities, but also ear for iconoclasm in how he handles or manipulates form in music and in his enthusiasm for new music - in being an estimable composer himself. For Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, there is definitely a nod toward ‘period’, that with how flexibly Salonen applies it, if not most specifically, usually makes for sound, sometimes vital interpretations of music from this world also.

In pairing works by masters distinct from each other as Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms, Salonen found subtle means toward making this concert a convincing whole. The classical frame, already partly addressed with the Berlioz, how it applies to music made for an overriding theme. In the context of the rhapsodically broad tempo Salonen helped give the first movement of the Brahms concerto, there was occasionally tendency to press hard forward – without jerking tempo forward as to become completely different or caricature of itself. Press forward would happen at several moments of vigorous orchestral ritornello, as to demarcate varied formal divisions therein. Within the frame, there was a thoroughly worked out internal dialogue between soloist and orchestra, also most intimately individual members thereof making much coherent out of both orchestral and soloist narrative throughout.

With the Berlioz, one had the classical frame posited as something archaic as opposed to just elegant, charmante, garden variety this way, out of which would emerge not the striving to stabilize boundaries as with Brahms, but striving instead to entirely break free of them. It is for instance in worship of the ancient world, there are still traces of conservatism in Berlioz - to balance out here with there being very quiet radical tendencies as way of looking forward in Brahms.

Young violinist Sergei Khachatryan and Salonen took opening movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto very broadly.. Both sustained interest and line through it very well - with greater imagination the orchestral protagonist in this than as led recently by either Janowski or Vanska. Gracefully, Khachatryan with slightly sticky tone and articulation had to remind one somewhat of Oistrakh and his light fast-paced vibrato, with especially sweet tone above the staff Menuhin also occasionally.. His playing is still such that there is room to mature, to having the greater phrasing accuracy of an Oistrakh, more inner quality of a Menuhin, but he has already come a long way toward especially finding an individual voice of his own. Very few technical challenges of playing the Brahms fazed Khachatryan here – music for which he displayed very confident reach, idiomatically so.

Salonen assisted in seeking out, finding much internal dialogue here, synthesizing some of the classical polarity that can often strictly define formal properties in Brahms.. There is at times some tendency to meander with line at hand, but the subtle and most often highly supple interlocking of lines, voice leading between sections, orchestral soloists was such to enhance an overall picture or aura of intimate musing between soloist and members of the Philharmonia. None of this got taken to excess, more than of mildly self-attentive variety. Detachment between such intimate musing and more sturm und drang passages of the opening movement threatened to make itself obvious, but managed to stop at a line, lest concept of form get betrayed halfway. A heroic surge coursed through the orchestral ritornelli in this in what was re-creation of as much personal character to the Brahms as is its form.

Internally achieved was also the caprice with which Khachatryan infused his part. It played part in a more blended but still further individualized take on what is often the classically polarized obbligato that, on the surface of things, every Brahms concerto solo part is. Equally relaxed and at ease with it all was the schmaltz with which Salonen goaded the second theme and accompaniment thereof.

The second movement opened out less encumbered for the pastoral mood of its entirety, at good moderate tempo. No drooping over ends of phrases occurred here, as mentioned before of Marek Janowski and principal oboist of RSO Berlin. Echoing flute and horn, contrasting placing between each, helped make highly poetic Khachatryan’s opening solo. The tone for this simple idyll was most reassuring – but in view of ‘Scene aux champs’ to come, in the same key, ironic. As can be deduced that outer sections of the slow movement make then inner frame to something else, Khachatryan led the middle section to this movement with supple, deeply felt passionate introspection. The luminous interweaving of lines between strings and winds, arising from less complexity than during the first movement was still something in which to absorb one’s self.

Salonen and Khachatryan threw not quite all but much inhibition aside for a hearty, robust, rollicking rondo-finale, making broadly heavily rustic its Hungarian, Haydn-esque, and most energetically its caccia, hunting call accents. One during the coda picked up foretaste of hounds of hell, figuratively speaking, for finale to the Berlioz. Khachatryan slurred well last two notes of his ascending dotted rhythm octaves of a second theme - juxtaposed with most free playing of light arpeggi and even more rapid-fire awkwardly placed runs. Juxtaposition of alternating episodes inspired most alternately energetic and light interplay between soloist and orchestra, all as though inspired by Haydn.

All internal, external classical precepts got well observed, but as if to sit there as hollow frame to flights of imagination through which Berlioz would take us. The thoroughly worked out transformation of the idée fixe in its numerous guises became front and center. Pierre Boulez, doing this piece, was known for taking what is still reckoned an academically, musically teleological approach. Salonen, without being quite this level of musical intellect, has taken here as much a dramatic approach as one just musically or academically forward looking. Imagine the enveloping taken off just about everything in this piece, almost as though tree stripped of much of its bark. This all proved at first irritating, but ultimately necessary for what disquieting vision infuses this music.

This was by no means a ‘period’ performance of Symphonie fantastique, but one that took on meta-textual characteristics at times – almost to extent to adopt new term for certain things occurring therein – meta-period. One thinks on such conventional terms of romantic ideals here and utopian bliss tied in with how we expect so very much of the musical rhetoric therein to be heavily couched. However, even in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, there is a flip side here - a tendency to what is savage and barbaric. Of Salonen’s way with Symphonie fantastique, without kinking anything or making any cheap cliche, Max Ernst’s The Robing of the Bride comes to mind, but against backdrop of quasi-Nordic barren landscape. What bliss, ephemeral joy, hysteria Berlioz’s music expresses, he makes obvious for those people who do not shy away from the dark side of things...Nobody interpreting this music has obligation to put listener at ease, albeit Salonen spoke of being mindful to maintain a minimum of constraints of good taste for sake of the music’s ability to speak, without which it can not have shocking effect. This delicate balance Salonen observed with fine expertise.

Even though polite to open and bring to close the first movement very serenely, there was so much the unrest it expresses in-between. The long extended oboe entrance for the coda Salonen almost completely held back from lingering over to make what we can now construe is more cosseting than full delineation of suspensions and appoggiatura in string obbligati. Timpani durjng climactic cirque transformation of idée fixe almost took on a life, acoustically at least, of its own, that there is on the surface great elation momentarily, but underneath absurdly the most primitive drives compelling all forward. Salonen drove the Exposition statement of idée fixe hard, with incisively pointed caccia accents to robustly syncopated accompaniment underneath – such as also got intimated in episodes of the two remaining, very contrasting odd-numbered movements to follow.

Most coolly docile was Salonen’s handling of galante manner in Berlioz’s writing, such as to open ‘Un Bal’ - at once a paragon of charm while empty shell to the rest. He gradually worked up this movement into a paroxysm of dizzying energy, color, and hysteria by its close, and after only very briefly getting covered up by the strings, full engagement of cornet obbligato to point of doubling so many lines emerged, as also piccolos in hysterical fashion their arpeggios at cadence right to prepare final clarinet reminiscence of idée fixe. Oboe limned very gently longing reminiscence of the same earlier, over darkly rumbling lower strings.

Salonen eschewed making sublime the opening of ‘Scene aux champs’, leaving calls between English horn and distant oboe to speak for themselves, with at first barely audible tremolo from the strings underneath to produce sense of void underneath. First theme in unison violins still had unencumbered its noble shape and profile, but with loud upbeats to groups of three repeated notes in strings underneath. Reaches for long held notes in low double bass and lower winds, brass, much as it did in ’Reveries, Passions’ earlier, served at once its purpose both as voice leading and invocation of menace. The diffuse acoustics of Royal Festival Hall abetted in Scene aux champs painting a picture taken up with so vast space for in which all to take place.

Salonen at one point unabashedly allowed top violins to shriek broken diminished chord trailing off from brass fortissimo climax. He made equally dissonant however simpler climax of cadence on the tonic up high, by emphasizing Berlioz’s third doubling therein in as harshly lit a manner conscionable. It was as though for Salonen to rhetorically confirm what he had said earlier about his adherence to German harmonic, structural logic having prejudiced him for so long in taking on Berlioz as anything worthy to be doing, for I suspect shorter number of years than he let on. Salonen without too exaggerated a slow tempo fully capitalized upon the extended timpani responses to unanswered English horn calls, their timing and at what illusion of distance at which they should be heard gauged with again superb expertise. One was left not so much in awe of any great display of technique as of great emptiness of space surrounding it all.

Rolling timpani throughout March au supplice almost stole the show, but as to make the march to the gallows relentless, even more terrifying than arrival there. Fractious writing in dotted rhythms was equally incisive and implacable. Without ever for purpose of putting it on display, the harmonizing of great variety of muted brass accents was just about equally grim - such that would persist through following witches’ Sabbath.. The acoustic setting up of space, making it sound as in encounter of the unknown how and from where things might enter to open the finale was also disquieting. There were certainly loud climaxes in final two movements of this ‘fantastique’ - loudness thereof no crutch on which Salonen relied upon in the least (though mildly compromised by Royal Festival Hall acoustics).

Simple, moderately shallow church bells introduced ‘Dies Irae’ on old world muted brass as answered by from mid to back placed witches’ ride caprice from the winds, as though to float out in space. Salonen then pushed hard the fugato, as to have it carried out in almost stifled accents to be broken by sharp, disjunct interjections occurring along its way. Fractious stormy antiphonal interplay was caught so well to bring all to a riveting conclusion – using tactics similar to those of Igor Markevitch at producing it.

Though including a halfway rousing Mahler Sixth and probably equally fine Gurrelieder, a recent Vienna City of Dreams (fin de siecle Vienna) series came across as halfway faceless or bland. In its own bizarreness, the meta-period tendencies Salonen employed, with setting up much convention bound docile framing of things - worked toward opening up much greater chasm as such. Nothing should be safe with this music, any Berlioz; at last here, it most certainly was not.

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