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.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Proms 24 and 27. BBC Scottish SO, Donald Runnicles. Karen Cargill. Halle Orchestra, Mark Elder. Paul Lewis.

Prom 24. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles. Karen Cargill. Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus. Royal Albert Hall. August 4, 2010.

This resulted in second Mahler collaboration by Sir Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the BBC Proms, the first one of which, Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, also featuring Karen Cargill, anticipated Runnicles assuming helm this past regular season as their new chief conductor.

As first one of these I heard, this interpretation of the Third, in its overall profiling of form, was reliable, but in finding the character of this music within such, tentative. The first movement, paced well, but with self-conscious thrust on occasion to keep all moving - for fear of instead dragging things - made inchoate slush out of some of its fabric. Such became only able to fully dissolve right before end of the first movement. Boorish romp of the Rabble episode and enunciation of most trombone arioso both happened very capably. Runnicles distinctively also found a rapt stillness for long rests between more dramatic utterances, mostly during wintrier episodes of the first movement.

Curious was a tendency to press forward sometimes, to get stopped by numerous sub-phrases in early funereal sounding rumblings through this - the losing sight of being able to press still a little more forward through series of these. Excessive dovetailing of many phrase endings in arioso developing in solo brass, partly to hide how expressively generic Runnicles’s handling of all this was, also became distracting. After first soggy intimation of thaw outdoors, Runnicles made confusing in terms of placement (vis-à-vis accompaniment) trombone lines through concertato of brass to what gets intended as fairly definitively nodal, sufficiently final conclusion - before real thaw settles in. Deep pulsation in the lower strings to close this section only compensated so far.

Some haze was made of figuration leading into more complete thaw to arrive, followed by adequately, surreptitiously entering march; handling of climatic music to cap further overt pressing forward was stodgy. Large segue back to renewed cold blast (in D Minor) got rushed and brass arioso solos to follow again were shapeless, with change into brighter color for brief duet between concertmaster and principal horn matter-of-fact, only minimal. The Rabble section started off well, very much in character, but then lost – eight measures in – lack of focus to line ensuing through it. Strings through the storm then got drowned out, compromising the full effect of a summer storm to wrest one through the midst of all occurring about. Runnicles then awkwardly jumped over good two beats of rest for snare drum to urgently segue in the recapitulation Calibration of rustling tremoli beneath more spacious spinning out of arioso in trombone was even a little more emphatically off than before ‘rabble’ and tempest, but BBC Scottish cellos framed eloquently their closing phrase to what followed.

Lift verging on Disney, cartoon-like opened second half of the Recapitulation. March tune, though through much of the rest gained better shape and dark episode right before the end, with its large, wide sweeping gesture, ascending runs too finally at last gaining the profile they deserve. Push to the end from here turned so light, detached from all the previous to insipid length, perhaps to help one forget the limited engagement of the shifting variety of colors and light through such a sprawl of a Mahler first movement.

Dragging accents from the oboe principal apart, the Minuet took on pleasant shape, but with Runnicles once into first Mendelssohn like trio self-conscious about downbeats, to make sure his forces all enter right. Clarinets, coming off strong gust of wind coursing through the meadow with refined attention to where downbeats are, restored requisite lightness to the touch for most of this. Drowsy feel, though on verge of becoming too gilded, informed reprise of the minuet, but nervous insistence on securing downbeats stood in the way of finding sufficient magic for varied strong breezes to waft on by through reprise of the trio section – bespeaking less than fully adequate preparation for intricacy to ensue through all this. Not all charm could get lost here, but there continued a nagging sense that there could be more to all this than to come by underlining so much – with final restoration of the opening section here. The heavy gilding of the light surge into the Neapolitan in the violins indicated perhaps higher rates of humidity out on a summer day in the highlands - or near Brenham where the bluebonnets grow and by the ice cream we eat, we surmise the cows near here think they graze in heaven.

Third movement, marked Comodo, got to the most promising start of anything thus far, with all rustic accents clear and good jaunt to the Beethoven parodying trio section. Just the concertato of winds at play through the scherzo seemed, one could surmise, as effective self-guided, as having to be extra attentive all the time to reassure the maestro that, for their section, all remained intent on staying together. A few disproportionate accents and over-emphasis on fortissimo crane downward of octave staccato brass distracted from overall good flow in advent of expansive posthorn interlude to follow.

Broadly taken post-horn interlude began magically – post-horn placed more forward than perhaps is ideal. Some element of the vernacular then crept in, even crooning of such, into the playing, limiting to ordinarily sublime this adieu to romanticism. Spirited enough, forthrightly paced, extra pointing of kletzmer accenting and sloppy attack in the strings during scherzo reprise turned vulgar. Birds, perhaps wanting to catch more Mozart, Schumann in the posthorn calls when they resumed, had to blithely settle once more for muzak instead; with perk aplenty, they did just that. Runnicles made something too lightly restrained for very close to the scherzo - after slight trouble right before with notably brief, mysterious episode – before all got sent hurtling off to a very rollicking conclusion.

Equally flat-line as mysterious episode right before - it called for to be very close to still anyway - was how opened the Nietzsche lied. The deep toned, highly expressive and solemn Karen Cargill guided horns into obbligato of very well sculpted line; violins followed suit eloquently on their cantilena between verses. Cargill, past illusion of practically too motionless re-start, gave her lines, starting off very quietly, the fuller ardor, urgency with no lapse in quality of what she poured out. Why could not have the childrens' choir been called to rise out of their seats right before the caroling fifth movement, instead of two seconds in? All was crisp from both choirs, with Cargill lightly but very expressively delivering much expected penitential fervor for her lines.

Solemn fervor marked most of the Adagio, with measured, freely expressive slow opening to its noble line and arch. Mildly extra arched leaning into climactic passages, particularly the vertical handling of a last one to reprise of Minore episode, proved distracting. Fine overall legato, filling out of transfigured light pretty much however still ruled the day. One or two transitions produced from Runnicles tentative opening to coda reprise of the hymnal main theme. Second part of double reprise at one point also got a little more chewed upon than should be ideal. Runnicles, apart from excessively projecting allargando turns in the trumpet parts, showed restraint in bringing his steadily paced Adagio to a measured, very euphonious conclusion. Apart from several lapses, still achieved here was a fairly acceptable rendition of the Adagio, to close halfway decent, but ordinary stroll through Mahler's paean to Nature - his Third Symphony.

Prom 27. Halle Orchestra, Mark Elder. Paul Lewis. Royal Albert Hall. August 6, 2010.

One among set of ‘Impressions’, nine minutes long, John Foulds’ evocative ‘April-England’ opened this altogether fulfilling single Halle prom for the summer. It opens with bright woodwind dominated carillon of alternating perfect fifth triads, perfect fifth apart - cellos responding with folk-like air of their own. A passacaglia takes up the entire middle half of this piece. Mark Elder preferred within fine enveloped profile to emphasize this music’s warmer colors, but without understating too much its brasher qualities, as in some of its extended polytonal leanings almost coming loose from their tonal moorings. It is perhaps as much as anything our knowledge of the music of William Walton, that in this music’s brasher qualities and brighter dissonances, one may pick up on the surface some Petrouchka like quality to the scoring, but deeper still the influence of Busoni. Mark Elder preferred having this music play in mildly broader, Romantic context, but within fine technique on display from the Halle. For all the free alternation of contrasting, clashing strands to jostle about the Halle exuded much confidence. If not as fully characterized as possible, Elder made overall good nature of this music, with its vernal splash, still something to be presented as at forefront.

An air of self-conscious reticence with quasi-period abbreviated note values opened the orchestral Exposition for the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto. All suggested some fine opening out of the line with winds, their entrance with the lyrical second theme, Except for distracting clunky negotiated cadence of sorts, fine calibrated tremolo through Halle strings assisted very well preparing Paul Lewis’s severely negotiated first entrance, with even octave length runs slightly more rolled than how he played similar later.

From this point on, even including the on purpose strained sturm und drang opening to the solo cadenza, everything from this point on just fell ideally into place, with hardly ever any lapse to encounter again. In all three movements, Lewis’s alternation of solo lines with principal winds and elaborate accompaniment to them was astutely, keenly sensitive - Lewis always also providing strong shape or at least preparation to everything in this way. While always highly attentive to maintaining classical proportions, Lewis still brought out a fire, a stormy quality to even ends of lines of animated figuration to extend and highlight a solo line both seamless and febrile with vitality – all without even a hint of self-consciousness. It was very evident how close Lewis and Elder had come together long by the coda by the very rapt attention to all at hand from both, in as tricky a passage to calibrate as anything in the Third Concerto. Lewis’s marking of long first descending run with forthright marking of thematic motif in strong octaves beneath into scintillating subtly varied trills was further hallmark.

Even a hint of Lisztian fire subtly infused spinning off cadenza like runs in the Largo within sublimely classical profile, noble shape to it all; bel canto ardor for beautifully singing line on the Hamburg Steinway employed for this entire venture was clear. One had to take note of how nobly profiled slow measured ascents on staccato sixteenths to accompany chords in the winds then set off much spin-off of very bright filigree in the right hand to follow. All then through subtly profiled alternation of simpler lines restored complete sense of noble frame to the Largo.

On purpose hesitant solo opening to the rondo overtly suggested openly mischievous play to come – in most varyingly enlightened openly Haydn-esque a manner. Lewis made suggestion of Lisztian quality to most brilliant flourish in the writing, but as still strongly characterized and framed by very forthright classical profile to it all. Elder and the Halle could have scarcely ever missed a beat in what continued as their best efforts in combining so well with Paul Lewis. This even rang true through raptly attentive, well articulated fugato to frame re-entry by Lewis into sublimely framed E Major reprise of opening theme. Reclamation of the opening idea in C Minor by the Halle, sternly astute, recalled overall tenor, sonority of the first movement. For further contrast, skipping descending second theme was both sprightly and minutely pointed from within by Lewis – for Halle solo winds to attempt precisely matching him at it – at which they mostly succeeded. Lewis entered slightly early on purpose, rhetorically to spin out very brilliantly the bracing cadenza and coda to follow with, though rigorously firm, a very merry, bustling conclusion to not only a definitive interpretation of the rondo, but of much of what preceded it, concerto as a whole.

Richard Strauss at the 2009 Proms shared, between several major tone poems performed, the giving off of more brilliant virtuosity than have either Bychkov's 'Alpine' or this Heldenleben entrusted to Mark Elder. Whereas good characterization in Strauss takes much virtuosic ability to achieve it, the Halle, while understating it, remained confident. There is certainly a ruminative, philosophical element to take into account. Ironically, in taking such an approach (Luisi's 'Alpine' not lacking some special insights –cross-referencing to other Strauss), some of the humor that occurs in this music can feature in stronger, even high relief - as opposed, for instance, to resembling just another dollop of virtuosic gesture. Much, not all of the Mehta Don Quixote last year, brilliantly played, demonstrated very good ear for it.

There is certainly risk, with Heldenleben, in taking excessively the meditative or ruminative approach. Try for instance still fairly recent EMI disc by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic - in which I had placed high hopes. It stands as one of the most pure, perfectly staid, marmoreal Heldenleben's around on disc today – nevertheless so well executed. With there being so much about the 'romantic life' with Strauss's hero, self-portrait here, one seeks, strives in vain for indication of anything healthy to this going on - apart from maybe Strauss’s long-standing patience, virtue, but hardly masculinity in living long with a woman who when peeved could on a dime turn shrewish. Toscanini, had he perceived impetus behind writing this was just as Rattle picks it up, might have held Strauss in close to same regard he did Bruckner - or speculate as to when Richard and Pauline might have taken up Christian Science or anything likewise ascetic.

It was thus with mild trepidation I approached listening to this Heldenleben; but glad to report glass considerably more full than empty here. Certainly one could construe a certain Victorian mild manner, restraint, reticence in going about this, but fortunately we were clearly into world as Strauss conceived it - thus farther away from Dream of Gerontius or The Apostles than with Rattle's still well polished Heldenleben.

Mark Elder made lean fervor out of the 'hero' theme, encouraging violins to make sharp cut-offs to their interjections between statements thereof. Foray into enharmonically achieved harmonies immediately turned all airy, with even incisive coloring of reverie penciled in - no gilding allowed. Fine, muscular striving was made out of broader reaches into restatements of the 'hero' idea ultimately into strongly marked passionate sweep up major ninths in the violins toward making freely broad cadence to this section. Elder relied not at all on prop of hairpin pause to politely frame adversaries' entrances; their insolence got forthrightly, rudely emphasized instead - with all variety of cocky wit possible, just exactly as all should happen. Languor from violins was in full supply to stoically provide empathy.

Cheeky reprise of 'hero' material refrain then ushered in Lynn Fletcher, first very pensively as 'Pauline.' – as though shy to enter center stage just as of yet. Her mastery of much delicious caprice to follow showed a few cracks - hardly at all to impede upon the variety of attack, wit, color with which she displayed the flighty moods, passion of Pauline Strauss. Surge of passion from all tstands behind her developed gradually - eventually to take it on in full, with simultaneously steady tone and unbridled passion, while keeping the simplicity of Strauss's design in focus.. Fletcher then with great ease fell back into fine state of reverie as full participant in taking it all in. it would have been churlish to ask for more. Rattle's 'Pauline' episode had practically become staid to effect it could have made D.H. Lawrence blush - not forgetting how well Berlin can still play it. Fletcher’s unusually fine portamento, coming off well limned harp glissandi, provided great finishing touch – followed by very fine reflectively ardent principal clarinet.

Battle proceeded with consistent touch of irony, strong wit. One waited s in vain for the Halle to make as grand a cacophony as one might immediately draw out of a Berlin or Chicago, but no matter. Shift in emphasis here was at least in spirit as much in line with what Strauss wrote as any hollow bombast to be made out of this. Much sharp intricacy of the writing in so much interplay very skillfully, especially in light upper strings and winds highlighted the irony. Such vain conflagration shifted gears with ease into lean, direct repeat of idea of 'man of the bourgeoisie' hero Strauss was - with repeat chord accompanying winds driving all stirringly forward. Elder only lost a little focus in this music taking on greater heights than perhaps his interpretation would sustain - yet with french horn principal excessively underlining his part (through notable quotation of Don Juan) as though attempting to take it all on alone. His excellently very controlled soft playing in final episodes, however, came across most refined.

Noble cast, broad pace, also expressively guided mild liberty with Strauss's tempo markings informed closing passages to this Heldenleben. If there were one or two places the Halle strings could have sung out more passionately, they only held back once again with overall shape of the discourse here in mind. A hanging, drained tone of reverie over still, rocking obbligato in English horn was most poetic, following agitated stretto Elder avoided making too brusque. The woodsy toned reminiscence of earlier tone poems in previous episode found Elder on equally intimate terms with all of this. Passing reminiscence of adversaries became oppressive, almost as though something frozen in the psyche - all the greater for arriving conclusion to be more reassuring.

Lynn Fletcher's duet with principal horn maintained very slow steady line - all riding out beautifully poised toward horizon – with brief following moment of peroration all devoid of bombast. If not the most inspired Heldenleben, it still had plenty to say - what genuine, fervently humane qualities in full this music should still ideally communicate.

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