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, July 26, 2010

BBC Proms 2010. Proms 4 and 5. Royal Liverpool PO, Vassily Petrenko. WDR Koln, Semyon Bychkov.

Prom 4. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Vassily Petrenko. Simon Trpceski. Royal Albert Hall. July 19, 2010.

What would normally expect to be a more brooding cast over such a Byronic inspired program as this, hardly ever came close to overstating such here. Two familiar settings of the narrative poem Manfred sandwiched the Rachmaninoff C Minor Piano Concerto.

Gustav Mahler’s orchestration of the Schumann Manfred Overture opened, with novelty of hearing this orchestration at its Proms debut refreshing. Several doubts linger on, however, after having heard this for the first time. First there is the cymbal crash Mahler adds at its outset - that especially given 'period', the take-over of such and tendencies to follow - what else can happen. Still, some doubt can linger even in context of a full-fledged Romantic interpretation of this as to whether or not such embellishment fits well the rest. Vassily Petrenko made the overture’s opening chords too brusque for its opening to be effective. Very stark - not provided sufficient relief by these chords - was as written in violins the introductory augmenting of upcoming Allegro's main theme - stripped other than for flutes of most woodwind doubling underneath. Petrenko then fortunately made seem organically generated transition into the Allegro – with airy lift provided its lyrical second subject. Inner driven agitation then vigorously informed the following sequencing of arpeggios.

Elongation of upbeats into descending inversion of the main theme was most expressive, but incited clipping of the arpeggios themselves, making Mahler's open re-scoring of the Schumann verge on sounding too extreme. Lift for continuing building agitation within came loose from pulsation underneath, making transition into what followed clumsy. Making Mahler's rescoring Schumann sound so misguided was Petrenko's cutting out of sufficient weight underneath the tremolo driven main theme, by being so strict to tempo and hard-driven - abetting wrongly Mahler’s having left violin section lines so exposed. Downright crude earlier was clipping of forceful brass for segue into subsidiary idea or thus broken consequent in the first theme group. In the end, good repose and noble poise informed closing measures. This interpretation of Manfred provided modern ears some rescue of Schumann from overused luftpausen, cliche from the past. Motivated fiery response especially from the Royal Liverpool strings, as expected of good risk-taking; all resulted however in almost making something two-dimensional of Mahler's fine re-orchestration.

Simon Trpceski poetically weighted, voiced opening chords of the Rachmaninoff with Petrenko scaling first theme with brooding line, albeit streamlined for it. All made curiously cautious, back-phrased the quickly following scherzo-like episode and then curiously punched, detached the strong cadence ending it. Elaborate reprise of the second theme Trpceski shaped so well also sounded detached from the rest. Suavely insinuated in by oboe, easy transition to a glibly handled, executed Development then transpired. Rhythmic firmness, spring to mercurial piano obbligato to Piu vivo episode making way into stormy re-transition went missing. Petrenko then made yelling contest between orchestral sections amongst themselves and piano obbligato of the retransition - crude march step then strutting forth the Recapitulation. So much impulsivity in a way was compelling, but with little in way of finesse to make any of it count. With minimal framing, RLPO principal horn poetically dignified reprise of the second theme; Trpceski was provided – framed by languorous cellos - space for well limned good pacing of growing agitation to follow - albeit for how Petrenko walloped the final cadence.

Fine calm, nocturnal sense pervaded opening to the Adagio, with winds and Trpceski sensitively marking harmonic changes within finely spun and undulated cantilena to extend out its first theme. Development opened with fine introspection and reserve – toward prudent, gradual building up of vernal like agitation to eventually all spill over; Petrenko then methodically began to push a little harder than he should, thus Trpceski's cadenza sounded more like note-reading than normally the case. Tripceski then recovered fine arch, poise to moderately climactic sweeping line, making beautifully poised conclusion of what remained.

Marked clipping of marcia start to the finale sounded as though trying to prove something; Trpceski then insipidly over-worked the opening theme - with technique to burn to be able to do it. Fine sway of what spun out thereof preceded embarrassingly randy brass to mark stretto finish to opening section. Trpceski gave the celebrated second theme more shape, profile than norm here thus far. Much of the Development, absent of building anything from within, went by stiffly accented, vulgar, especially from brass, but to some extent from everybody. Trpceski in grandiosely recapitulating the second theme even opted momentarily for top-heavy, brittle marcato - to almost be mistaken for Alexis Weissenberg. Trpceski, welcome at it, rushed Royal Liverpool brass – Berlin Philharmonic they are not - off vulgarly making one transition during the coda; approximation of shotgun blast opened final big final reprise – with then truffle-hunt city for rush up to very end of what proved only a partially fulfilling account of the concerto.

'Manfred' by Tchaikovsky also fell short of being entirely convincing. Opening trudge of en masse descending lower strings Petrenko made gruff to extent that emphasis shifted from where expected to the effort orchestral players were putting forth to dig in. Purpose of the writing is to give sense of weary halt of lament in lower winds right overhead. All distinctive shape, meaning to overall line became nearly indiscernible through slowly rocking undulating triplets from lower strings. The reprise (Andante duolo) of then fully formed first theme toward end of the first movement, evinced similar vanity. Deliberate grind on internally agitated lower brass became intent on projecting something in its own right, thus undercutting profile to, brooding character of the main subject here.

The infectious enthusiasm evident in the playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under its new conductor, Vassily Petrenko makes it still appear he could be destined to accomplish much. Pacing and formal sense on the large scale were quite acceptable here, but the only passages in the first movement that convinced of more important considerations than that were those of the lyrical second subject, pointing to Astarte. The RLPO may still be capable of achieving results of some poise - that overlooked with Petrenko failing to think better of the idea of starting more forceful stringendo or pushing ahead early. Ragged playing in making a couple of notably tricky transitions between episodes also undercut the frame of this majestically tempestuous opening to 'Manfred.' Speed-up as segue into one of these moments - all shifting up and down triplets going flat-line thus far – would require some oomph. With impetus thrown off just enough as happened here, the first movement ended loudly, but hollow.

Petrenko made opening light accents of the Alpine fairy intermezzo sufficiently piquant, apart from rendering some arpeggio working out in the strings a bit stiffly, dryly and not avoiding putting a little bump into achieving loud conclusion near end of the main section. With what clipping got encountered earlier, here as well, the rhetorical lingering over a long extended F-sharp in the violas sounded misplaced; the middle section started at least momentarily with fine allure, pardoning some coy pointing of it by flute principal over dry, tense strings. Violins beginning to shout descant over only mezzo-forte reprise of main idea to the Trio in brass set aside most allure with which Petrenko had begun the section. Awkward negotiation of transitions continued throughout reprise of the main section, but with Petrenko being able to succeed at all effort to keep the coda airy and very light.

Violins of the RLPO then made sumptuous refrain to sagging oboe line to open following intermezzo. After some indistinct negotiation of rapid writing in triplets for strings underneath the flutes taking up the first idea, Petrenko clipped yodeling clarinets, denying them full sense of pastoral repose, contentment all about. Petrenko, youthfully impetuous, continued to mistake loud for impassioned for arched (more gently) sweeping refrain that then segued over to very loud, forced, thus insufficiently climactic interrupting crunch of first movement cadence to all apparent peace about - leaving light winds groping for their intonation, once all had retreated.

Much vigor, heft went into opening the finale - after sufficiently relaxed, atmospheric close to preceding pastorale. Even with what stirred up demonic accents build through the wild dance that takes off here, attention got distracted by fractious playing thereof in attempting to drive the point forward too hard - to point of shrieking from RLPO flutes, thumping accents in lower strings and 1812 Overture style brass fusillade - again, to be so emphatic, out of focus with picture being painted here. Even through dug in fugato to follow, on the surface or on the gut level, there was some real Slavic wildness, excitement here - but as nothing to last in real or imaginative way with the listener for over twenty minutes after all might have been said and done. Andante duolo reprise from much earlier was much the same as then. Now so close to the end of all this however, we arrived here hardly cut above 'hey, boys, we got it;’ sufficiently negotiated virtuosic playing for preceding wild dance and fugato was in fact impressive. Reflective episodes were fine, with possible exception of RLPO violins playing some aching rhetoric up high - paragraph or two before reprise of the Andante duolo. Could they have been the first to discover how to go about such heavy arm bowing?

All trailed off to a fine quiet ending, but seemingly out of place, with blast from organ and brass right before toying with going over the top. Petrenko must come as some relief after the doldrums of Gerard Schwarz, but at end of the day - recalling better Verdi Requiem some months ago that surprised me from this new partnership - it is going to be the finesse or more convincing approximation thereof (when one looks only to the big guns out there to be able to achieve the real thing) that is going to make the case. No amount of publicity surrounding this new marriage - RLPO and Petrenko – will ever be capable of replacing that.

Prom 5. WDR Koln Symphony Orchestra. Semyon Bychkov. Viviane Hagner. Royal Albert Hall. July 20, 2010.

Shimmer of light pervaded warm halo sustaining line through a most eloquent reading of the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin to set tone for what resulted in far different prom than the previous. WDR Koln strings sounded less entranced than their Royal Opera colleagues last year with what Bychkov compelled out of them, but the more natural at achieving very similar effect. Grandiose gesture with climax to seamless line through this took back seat to maintaining a hieratic solemnity, sense of awe from within.

Viviane Hagner with singing tone then made supple ballade out of the three connected movements of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, while engaging Bychkov as equal partner in the discourse – Bychkov never to encroach upon the best expressive efforts Hagner put forth – as could early mentor of his. Rubato between the two protagonists in this they both managed in a highly precise manner, but at same time as though it could have all been achieved improvisatorially. A couple of people took issue with Hagner’s playing being cold or not openly impassioned enough – not enough to project her opening appassionato to the first movement. Regardless there is the freedom a soloist has to achieve it all equally well as heard or felt from within. One could also note the lovely arch with which she gave the second theme, followed by dancing bows on triplets obbligato to closing theme – and later the ballade style rubato in approaching the widely spaced arpeggi ushering in from her cadenza the recapitulation. Her listening to all that went on orchestrally - with how Bychkov and WDR deftly, never portentously limned their part – paid off fine dividends. One might take issue with Hagner’s highest pitches sounding a bit squeezed, but growing evidence of fully achieved musicianship here more than compensated. Somewhat rare is it to hear middle part of the Andante so minutely spaced and harmonized between top line and both solo and orchestral tremoli underneath after Hagner’s reverie limned way to open this movement. Crisply pointed elfin dance was made of lively rondo, her work with Bychkov just as deft and fully collaborative as before - with fine, never prepossessing show of virtuosity in her playing.

This third time to hear Hagner proved ideal. As late added aside here, the support Chailly and the Gewandhaus gave her at her last Proms appearance for Beethoven was perhaps a bit lax in overall rhythms and profile, but paragon, Hagner included, of Olympian classical grace and serenity compared with vulgarization several nights later this year of Beethoven concerto here from Hilary Hahn and Paavo Jarvi.

Essay - recent Levine conducted Boston Symphony commission by Gunther Schuller got played next. Paired here with Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, I thought (mistake made before) I had read ‘Where the World Ends’. Here instead was statement of what music can say beyond where words cease to be able. Schuller practically could have instead called it ‘Where the Musical Phrase Ends’, of which Schuller has made varyingly aborted. Fortunately, most pretense ends there; there is still something to say here. Whereas there may not be the most compelling ideas to stitch much development thereof together, this piece carries along with it more than ample amount of craft – after chance to hear Schuller’s Violin Concerto and Seven Klee Studies.

‘Where the Word Ends’ is in four to five movements, all but opening Lento (first Adagio to which it may be an epilogue) and rapid finale forming a palindrome - scherzo and trio between first Adagio and its more elaborate reprise. Good insinuation of chorale in lower strings forms bedrock for swirling assortment of trills and ostinati in mostly high violins – as out of Bartok’s ‘night music.’ Ostinati at tritone formed against firmly held pedal point; out of this emanated sustained chorale line in the winds approximately four minutes into the first movement. Broken melodic fragments, chord progressions ricocheting off each other, practically four octaves apart, and then groping ascension for opening to achieve long legato line all recall Bartok.

Material from earlier movements overlapped into later - including pedantic repeat of four- note violin ostinato from very early on as theme to start the finale. A deeply saturated Bergian chord helped frame mere start to cantilena for principal clarinet - fitfully to carry on toward assuming better shape – all toward compellingly moving through a second hypertrophic chord - impact of latter which on purpose then must dissolve into thin air, limned by high trills. Stravinskian derived ostinato then emerged - as though to have switched ‘Spring Rounds’ into being in triple meter as repetitive tritone chord went thumping overhead So much simple repetition thereof in the Scherzo got counteracted just so far by seemingly at random interjections breaking in on it. More rapid articulation in groups of four in the finale intimated same idea as just cited here. Similar figuration in the finale fleetingly emulated Messiaen, as also did light wind concertato progressions of close together intervals during the Trio. Trio section proved a highlight – its supple enveloping by harp (only vaguely Brucknerian) of several things hallmark. Messiaen-esque strings’ swirl of arabesque played off antiphonal, bluesy muted trumpets; incidental wind concertato musette therein also proved charming as was already inherent cross-section of intimating at once both Messiaen and the blues

Semyon Bychkov eloquently made levelheaded advocate for this piece, treating this loose-limbed construction mildly ‘high serious' perhaps. It also compositionally goes on several minutes past amount of material that would normally sustain just twenty minutes. Crisper accent to highlight Americana might have assured Schuller a more distinctively individual voice, but working out of so many cross-rhythms, and filigree, its spilling over was thorough here and at supple command. Well inculcated too was fine ear for this piece’s multifaceted, contrasting dissonances and their curious, inventive resolutions. Widely hurled about chords, jagged lines - with stratifying return of Messiaen-esque chakras – brought all to a satisfying, yet enigmatically adamant close – spaciously provided rhapsodic arioso in tuba over muted bluesy writing in brass an integral contribution.

Bychkov then made introspective farewell to his position with WDR Koln with, of all things, the Strauss Alpine Symphony (2009 Proms triumph for Fabio Luisi and Dresden). Luisi had the more panoramic view, with what seemed endless resources of brilliance from Staatskapelle - not allowing display to overshadow overall design of the work or its most richly expressive, evocative qualities. Bychkov had a little less the brilliant ensemble and was more self-effacing in what turned out here a more probing, intimately philosophical gaze at the mountain. By comparison, thinking back, Luisi may now seem to have been caught up by what lavish imagery Strauss sets forth - as to lose track of narrative. Bychkov’s intense focus on narrative was both obvious and subtle. As stated already, he was not to be lured over by any big moment, however grandiose, might it obstruct too much where the narrative should lead us.

Several moments - often emerging as just so much effect - without looking back at what I wrote, still linger on in my mind. In ‘Lost in the Thickets’, indicative of Luisi were numerous brilliant orchestral effects in winds and brass – indeed still quite meaningful. Bychkov, with mordant, dour wit, made perfectly sly, Haydnesque false turns during same episode through especially interweaving woodwinds, in reply to hubris from strings and horns in expressing their being so confident of knowing well the right path. ‘Precarious Moments’ was droller still – fear of taking false step with so much light chromatic staccato triplets down, while austerely giving off sensation of being at high altitude with aimless, broken trumpet calls cutting through the thin air. Such staccato for Luisi could have just as easily, insightfully for ‘Alpine’ been music for Nurse from Frau ohne schatten – different perspective than that of Bychkov but an equally valid one.

Thin atmosphere at the Summit stood out in strong relief - before elation in achieving it, for which on ardent cantilena off crests of the line Bychkov very well observed the fliessend (flowing) marking – not to get parked anywhere. Key moment, and in which on purpose he diffused out the sonic perspective for good phrase or two was during conspicuously arched ascending line in the strings over very stern reprise of ‘Night’ in the brass at end of ‘Vision’ - precisely limned mists rising up right before. Bychkov settled for moderate current to have unobtrusively flow through the mists, occluding the sun’s rays – as to disseminate all occurring right before. Elusive mystery to envelope the glacier episode, albeit with runs on lower strings somewhat obscured, was also fine.

Bychkov risked making Storm anticlimactic - partly due to a quasi-Gallic reticence about WDR Koln, concerning particular tone quality they most naturally project – with Bychkov intent on seldom forcing anything. With Bychkov conducting – no major quip here – especially in taking on Alpine, a subtle hooded quality or inculcated Slavic tinta lent impression acoustically of imaginary cowl hovering over the sound-stage. The Storm in fact starts descent down the mountain – with eventually confidently heroic reprise of ‘Ascent’ music mixed in. Bychkov - affecting a struggle for big arching motif of this to cut through all else - played on listeners’ fears of the climbers at best barely being able to make it. He then made stark outline, suffused with only just enough light to frame line with natural sense of atmosphere - for extended cantilena from WDR Koln strings through Sunset.

As anticipated by the Mozartean velvet, grace with which Bychkov approached Flowery Meadows and rhapsodizing during On the Summit, plus deep musing with which Elegy got infused moments before the Storm, his strings passionately sang the Epilogue over warm French horn obbligato, as to point toward or beyond last glimmer of horizon before all remaining light would fade. As an aside, Bychkov backed off from gilding the waterfalls, then making something bejeweled of Apparition to oxymoronically remind one of the Empress’s music, spirit world from Frau. Through organ and lower brass sonorities, Night subtly but assuredly, eventually stole in toward enveloping all else. Key to this interpretation of Alpine, one less notable for the large profile or spectacular effect, was seamless line with which Bychkov started moderately paced descending lower woodwind lines right at the very beginning. This was not the glib, halfway colorless Alpine of a Jansons or Hans Graf, but one reflective most of all, as though to vicariously, reminiscently enjoy again a great journey.

A mature view of Strauss then, as also possible with Wagner; those out to seek the most spectacular effect with Alpine had to have reckoned need for somebody other than Bychkov. He spoke well in interview of striving over much time, through numerous performances to find the pacing of so much of Alpine (for it to breathe) just right – just as we all must with life toward end we eventually meet. It succeeded very well here.

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