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, July 31, 2010

BBC Proms 2010 - Proms 6 and 8. BBC SO, Jiri Belohlavek, Paul Lewis (Beethoven cycle opener). BBC Nat'l Wales, Thierry Fischer. Alexander Toradze.

Prom 6. Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle. Paul Lewis. BBC Symphony Orchestra. Jiri Belohlavek. Royal Albert Hall, London. July 21, 2010.

The BBC Proms continued festive with opener to complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle – one better in having Paul Lewis as soloist. Two of the concerti comprised this series opener - the First and the Fourth. As Lewis explains, the First is obviously the more outward looking of these two, the Fourth the more inward, but enough to trade off between them as opportunity for Lewis to work in much subtlety, if not quite to fully academically achieved level of his mentor, Alfred Brendel - with that from Brendel sometimes some spontaneity abandoned.

The prom opened with Egmont Overture, some luftpausen - lyrical receding from which compelled some interest - toward start of it coming off indecisive. Jiri Belohlavek resorted to a little clipping to attempt firming up shape to first tutti in the Exposition - following noble arch in line for his cellos to introduce the main theme. Underlying accents with the main overriding line in tutti above got calibrated less fully than optimum. As matters wore on however, things gradually began to adopt more definitive shape with goal of achieving for the noble Egmont Overture a bright, heady conclusion.

One however had to wait past the First Concerto to find Belohlavek near his best. He had nobody better to emulate than Paul Lewis in this collaborative effort. Paul Lewis, much in alla breve manner of early Brendel, lavishly played up the brilliance of the solo writing and gregarious opera buffa element to this concerto’s outer movements. Occasion even to be outlandish, including big glissando into decisive start to the Recapitulation – as to have burst out of the shadows lurking about right before – was always right on target.

Belohlavek attempted making the BBC Symphony phrase about exactly as Paul Lewis was streaming all forth himself – albeit without their parts being functionally alike to his at all. With so much internally worked in device and rubato, the effort for orchestra to keep up with or capture much of the same became futile – glad nevertheless that soloist and maestro should indeed be very like-minded. There was much delightful here – the winsome smile with which Lewis characterized his opening solo, the on purpose garish brilliance with runs, rapid sequences and other feats of display. Belohlavek rendered phlegmatic a few introspective moments in the orchestral exposition, but Lewis searchingly, poetically the more deeply probing Development. Cadenza optimally came off with great wit, brilliance, and panache.

Bellinian line and reverie, never encumbered by any layering on - such as may have run Lewis aground on handful of movements during traversal of all the thirty-two sonatas two years back - characterized the Largo here in full. Sensuous duet with principal clarinet offered very pleasing equilibrium, tranquility, both soloists interchangeably enhancing the other's expressive efforts to the uttermost.

The rondo finale here continued the overall high spirits, with after Schnabel’s example, light, playful rushing down on bouncing accents at opening thereof, to make all jocular and light. Paul Lewis was also lightly brash, angular with middle section, retreating lines from both him and winds ideally balancing with poise much shaping they contributed here. Zip through ascending, smoothly terraced upward runs toward ending the rondo, playing off reprise of its main theme, was infectious. Lewis sang out last phrase to fine bel canto length, with only furious, rousing affirmation left to go.

Belohlavek then hit his stride with more vigorous than norm account of the Prometheus Overture, as to hint at much fire to draw up from underneath in the Fourth Concerto to follow. Belohlavek’s getting mix of both Italianate leggierezza and sturm und drang just in sync set all ablaze, as to make all galante or Biedermeier accents retreat. In doing so, he cut neither himself nor this music, its inherent charm short. All sufficed certainly well here to give the dilettantes in first audience ever for this a good jolt, Lord knows, what we always need these days, from anywhere, to do the same afresh.

The Fourth Piano Concerto turned out altogether a fine warm, glowing success. An unerring simplicity in setting all up quickly became rule of the day. The necessary poise was there for the opening unaccompanied soloist entry, without any affectation in the least. Lewis, after gently allargando inflected ritornello from Belohlavek, infused much opening elaboration with excellent singing quality to draw in full upon the roots from which this kind of writing lies - light air of fantasy infusing the arpeggios to spin off from that. While maintaining complete classical poise, Lewis expanded out for transition into the flatted mediant with open freedom, space liberally allowed for such. Lewis clearly provided this place specific shape regarding this music’s classical proportions, and at same time, indicate how they on a grand scale verge on bursting apart. He then scaled down virtuosic right-hand figuration to mid-ground behind prominent line in the woodwinds toward closing the Exposition. As though observing the solo part from alternating prism angles, Lewis ideally proportioned opposing tendencies under-girding much here.

A hushed sense of wonder, of foreboding opened the Development. Agitato ascending arpeggios Lewis played as only slightly more prominent toward crest of each sequence of these than overriding line orchestrally. After passionate spinning forth of ensuing mini-cadenza, Lewis then made retransition gleefully light into stretto to open the Recapitulation. Spinning forth of descending elaborate writing off the second theme was brilliant, but as to avoid calling attention to itself. Lewis prudently framed opening of the cadenza with its alternating octaves, and then made Lisztian fancy of what then spins off from them to gently limned reprise of the second theme. Capricious agitated writing in the right hand very proportionately contrasted with sternly enunciating first subject, with stylized quasi-operatic turbulence to follow - all as though to clear the air through spinning forth single line through level upon high to limn orchestral re-entry.

Prudently enunciated intermezzo followed, with beautifully timed, proportioned rhetoric from both Lewis and Belohlavek. What virtues had transpired thus far infused the sonata-rondo finale with airy lift and winsomeness, while still in context of music turned more inward than that for the First Concerto. Fine, excellent calibration of agitato passages in mostly the Development Lewis made open in their impulsivity, contrasting them with unaffected soaring line up high over long pedal point in the lower strings. Reprise of the main theme, especially one variant on it with light melodically broken octaves, became exceptionally playful and witty. Belohlavek contrasted hushed rustle to opening of the finale with fine heft with matters arising toward direct confrontation between soloist and orchestra. Cadenza went by forthrightly - fine virtuosic spinning off the octaves and deftly upward bouncing trills to lead into Elysian legato singing of the main theme from woodwinds in reply. Spark infusing huge secondary dominant clash helped inexorably bring all to a fine conclusion, making overall conception of the rondo complete. Among three very fine performances of the Fourth lately, the Elysian Freire/Metzmacher and more impassioned Barenboim, this one captured the Fourth with fullest sense of perspective. It all proved very satisfying – anticipating a second all Beethoven evening from Bremen-based chamber orchestra that in affecting much accomplished very little.

Prom 8. BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Thierry Fischer. Alexander Toradze. Royal Albert Hall, London. July 22, 2010.

In order to hone in better on central work on this program – Britten programmed as its direct accessory, good to start by discussing the Prokofiev First Piano Concerto placed in-between. Thierry Fischer is frequently welcome guest at the Proms for his very formally astute, rhythmically incisive, and dramatically insightful to even searing interpretations.

Alexander Toradze, who recorded all five Prokofiev concerti with Gergiev and the Mariinsky, asked rightly so for more orchestra behind what commonly is very forceful playing from him on Prokofiev. Fischer accommodated Toradze best he could, therein helping develop quite a meeting of the minds, as can be expected in imaginatively approaching Prokofiev’s music from contrasting angles. Whatever few notes were missed, a few chords stumbled over, much imagination and vitality invested here into a slightly off-center interpretation of early Prokofiev, neurotic and plentifully insightful, paid off. BBC Nat’l of Wales sounded slightly thin for the very start of this; Toradze's pro-actively helping make his playing of the often clangorous introduction integrate with the rest, from a customarily heavier approach one is accustomed to from Toradze, was most beneficial. Toradze played scherzo passages with spiky incisive wit – precariously arched negotiation made of ascending passages toward arousing much excitability.

Without being as self-conscious as Gergiev, Fischer gave this music a restive sense of nervous anxiety already near this music’s surface - to run as strong undercurrent to much at hand, in joining Toradze toward intimating what is ahead in the G Minor Concerto. Peppered by upward glissandi from Toradze, all lurking shadows for first somber intermezzo were intact. Fischer’s feel for romanticism may not be so naturally full-throated as from a Slavic podium for extended slow passage midway through; Toradze presented himself fully poised to bring it all out - with Fischer his very close ally in fully reassuring all it would. Stringent push forward into final scherzo reprise toward segue into grandiose reprise of the opening of the concerto was riveting. This Prokofiev proved informed energetic antidote to sobriety of the two works book-ending this program, major work in key semitone lower than this concerto - opening Britten in key a semitone above.

Kurt Masur’s Orch Nat’l de France Shostakovich Seventh became outstanding climax to recent Shostakovich centenary year at the Proms. Before discovering Mravinsky’s recording of the Seventh ten years ago, I hardly at all well reckoned this work's very real importance. Mravinsky gets to layers beneath others a little beyond how I had ever heard anybody do the Seventh before – really since. The not particularly Slavic Thierry Fischer gave the Seventh an unusually probing look. Such was halfway expected, but extent to which he took matters was truly outstanding. With lean textures, even slightly detached quality Fischer opts for, one had to wonder how he might fare with such epic Shostakovich. My gut had me think back to, in wake of devastating Eleventh Metzmacher did last year, to retrying an old Andre Cluytens recording of again the Eleventh, beautifully transferred (Testament) from muddy sonics before (EMI).

A drier quality of the playing, rhythmic, expressive simplicity and substantial emotional reticence Fischer and Cluytens now share, quite inimitably so. They now both have made music of something justifiably reckoned of encompassing historical relevance. When one hears ‘cosmopolitan’ referring to Shostakovich, one often first thinks Haitink or Simon Rattle, who each can rise to the occasion, less the agit-prop, shibboleth of a Rostropovich, Bernstein, or of even Toscanini – latter whose Seventh the composer despised (should Solomon Volkov be trusted).

Fischer began the symphony in somewhat ironic style – majestic start to ‘calm before storm’ episode – in giving it a regimented feel and even lightly interjected brash lift to succeeding line – that all with crisp gesture and much insinuation underneath fully started getting various points across. Fischer traced lines through contrasting orchestral voices with acute sensitivity – with much ominous hint of what is to come infusing so very much, as in almost comparably individual way to Ancerl or Mravinsky on disc. Richly voiced interaction between winds and lower strings well anticipated the gently limned second theme plus much else.

With Fischer, one had not the voice of the people so to speak, but that of the individual, that of a small voice through it all - without cheapening anything, humanizing Shostakovich in the process. Uneasy peace prevailed well until the ‘war march’ with out of all development of lyrical and melodic strands also would come on another level the darkest and most sinister motifs to emerge here as well. As has been said before, it is two sides of one coin that get depicted here. The Seventh is not quite two types of music that all as though through happenstance got stitched together to make some program out of it; it certainly was not here.

After benighted good cheer from piccolo and tense, thinly played high cadence by Lesley Hatfield, ensued the non-Development ‘war march.’ Fischer was unabashed in giving first full brass variation of it good swagger, and at what uncertain goal he hears everything here - with it no longer specifically the Wehrmacht any rationalization. Shostakovich, in writing the march, more likely had much noise, celebratory balloons surrounding Stalin’s five year plans in mind - source for the march being both German and Russian (including motif from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk). A certain cool, glibly detached steady push forward on Fischer’s part here accurately depicting such behemoth - suggested mechanization, bureaucratization of society, of all human impulses thereby - moved forward to crush all. Without inculcating any untoward accelerando, Fischer had all inexorably strut forward through passing terror to very impassioned grief, especially in trumpets and high strings. Following somber long bassoon solo was most eloquent - amidst much sullen, numbed, shocked grief; it was starting with the loud opening of the Recapitulation at which Fischer logically found the heart of this sprawling movement. Expected reprise of opening material followed - with mildly less thrust, thus plentiful space for single pitch warnings in lower horns over low tremolo in timpani to sustain full sense of foreboding to its conclusion.

Fischer wisely chose to take the scherzo moderately swift - it too easily achieved some bonhomie, bourgeoisie sentiment in keeping with this music’s supposedly populist appeal otherwise. Even in single line in the violins approaching pizzicato reprise of the opening to segue in the middle section Fischer found element of harmonic impetus behind it, not just that of the Scherzo, but of continuing train of thought throughout the entire symphony. Fischer made for middle section insistent rocking motion forward with shrilly played piccolo clarinet high above agitated and very stark. He gave middle section of the Adagio - with its close-interval trumpets over driving percussion – similarly vigorous, virile stringency, despondency. The shudder, choked back tears associated with flutter tonguing in the flutes toward end of the Scherzo was subdued, as instead to sparsely depict numbed frozen expression of grief. If less moving than example set before, there was still the somber, distraught bass clarinet to eloquently fill all out.

Fischer’s keeping line very well sustained through the Adagio - with stark, Stravinskian austerity with which he infused its opening heavily doubled chorale for winds - was most convincing. He settled for gentle lift to accompany long spun, developed several pitch falling figure Tchaikovsky Third String Quartet quotation. Cellos provided Tchaikovsky quote second theme fine tonal warmth to fill out what first flute stand had rhapsodized five minutes earlier. At moderately slow pace, this Adagio coming in close to nineteen minutes, Fischer let nothing meander off for anything merely incidental or to risk untoward over-emphasis. Better the simplicity this music conveys so well on its own. If not quite Shostakovich’s most inspired Adagio, it still has plenty to say, doing so most freely with much prudence regarding its construction - as encountered here.

The finale rustled with lightly setting off, urgently insistent press forward through the ‘battle music’, but toward no clear goal of victory in sight. Rapid swirling about, approaching fugato, turned furious – albeit wisely at level of controlled inexorably organic press forward. Fischer made very underlined and insistent his transition into the preponderant Moderato epilogue to both the finale and entire symphony – as for it to carry very significant weight as to counteract what false has often been construed of this finale. Fischer was so very specific, purposeful with it all to even have set in relief measure or two of caccia style triplets in the horns to catch all off guard. All remained lean, very tense through the end, as opposed to all loud and chutzpah, with fortissimo trumpets hanging on to dragging, but firm dotted rhythms on pitches of E and D-sharp to refer back to, crying out over all the rest, Fischer’s very dogged start to the Moderato. At pacing of the finale a little quicker than usual with pounding timpani to drive everything home at the end, all became much enhanced here, never short-changed.

Here was then indeed a resolution on purpose insufficient at resolving earlier accumulated tensions, thus as close to definitive an account of the finale I have yet heard. Fischer honed such with an ear for relationships at semitone, whole tone, tritone between harmonies - also as spun out in (quasi-) a cappella lyrical passages. As again voice here for the small voice or simple individual to carry weight, through such very thorough preparation Fischer provided here, there is unsuspected by dull-witted coterie of apparatchiks an ever strong element of formalism – more probing at it than possible earlier with the more popular Fifth.

For greater eloquence, Fischer might invite some of his principals to sing out their lines a little more fully. Ancerl’s opening out of space for fierce high trill in flutes above much racket had more fire (with such ample space Ancerl provides). than from tighter embouchures at work here. Such quip here is churlish, in context of everything here – a real ferreting out of all text that lies beneath other text; look of exhaustion, including very minor incidence off final chord, was fully earned. All most necessary to communicate here remained steadfast, paramount.

The program though opened with the Sinfonia da Requiem by Benjamin Britten. Thierry Fischer refused to comfortably settle with standard idiom for conducting Britten's music – complacent level at which can make Sinfonia da Requiem sound utterly formulaic – as happens so often. The fleshing out of the internal harmonic structure of the music and motion carrying through it, whether fast or slow, was highly compelling here, and impetus for Fischer to take slightly more extreme than the norm in what tempos he chose. Nothing stood out as being particularly at either extreme. It was most of all Fischer's tenacity to maintain his tempos in interest of a rock steady pulsation to persist through the outer slow movements. Such simply provided bedrock, against which all voicing, even open singing of the lines throughout spoke with febrile line to the uttermost - for what novel writing lies beneath and within to also fully register.

Jaunty ease with ‘Dies Irae’ death-dance of sorts got traded in for something more incisive, telling as such. Breaking apart of much activity at the end sounded as though having organically processed out of abundantly clear tendencies to all have emerged right before. Precision of ensemble, with everything very doggedly worked out, was indeed remarkable at the fast clip Fischer took, all for most musical of purposes. Especially in the Requiem movement, noting subtle dark coloring with which the winds underpinned ascending strings, things hinted at very similar harmonic relationships spelled out and developed in the Shostakovich to come. Such a purpose driven, historical and time relevant account of this piece - as to have fit entirely well the expressive to symbolic purpose of programming arranged here – seems rare indeed.

Such fragile impression of life communicated in febrile limning of very steadily paced chorale by which Fischer led the slow finale, highly affecting this way – several remaining voices at the end distinctive while fading away as well. Played with such conviction, all sense of foreboding emerged complete.

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