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, August 30, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Proms 48 and 57. Rotterdam Philharmonic, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Simon Keenlyside. Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska. Gil Shaham.

Prom 48. Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Simon Keenlyside. Royal Albert Hall, London. August 21, 2010.

Second only to flagship among Holland's orchestras has been for some time the Rotterdam Philharmonic. They could have not sounded more tentative as such than they did here under their still relatively new, quickly social ladder ascending music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin - in BBC Proms debut together. Opening this prom was a decently but blandly played Overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser – enough for anyone sensible to question Nezet-Seguin being put at helm in any major house for the complete opera. All tended to linger over opening statement of Pilgrims' in first the brass, cellos continuing it - to point that infusion of back-phrase and ritard's within the line eventually became blatantly obvious. So little of such Wagner marked into what he wrote; Nezet-Seguin left purpose for it beyond that unclear. Muddying of contrasting textural layers hampered profile for first full orchestral tutti.

Nezet-Seguin then nuanced well strands of Venusburg through most of it to still casually emerge flat-line. Violins forcing higher reaches within their lines - with so little vitality being spent here - made meager their reason for doing so. Pointing of violins stringent offbeat repeat-note segue into bright refrain of 'hymn to Venus' got put into drive suitable for game pep rally – lopsided within flaccid context all about. Running figuration in strings through this and through transition into reprise of 'Pilgrims' Chorus was supple, proving some depth still remaining among Rotterdam ranks – indicative of orchestra well worth preserving, saving from further decline. Cheap underlining of timpani rolls failed to calibrate well with anything else. Weak intonation of violins in getting heard over loud brass further into conclusion of this plus layered on accelerandi in reaching the very end all spoke clearly of what was lacking here.

Abetted by Nezet-Seguin, Simon Keenlyside attempted making too much of "Ich atmet einen Linden duft’ and then more heavily several songs later of 'Liebst du um Schonheit’ Such compromised the elusive beauty of what both men chose to open Mahler's Ruckert Lieder. Nezet-Seguin deftly kept pace all flowing through the accompaniment - with good contributions from principal oboe, flute and horn; a certain working of the text and nuance to fill it found these two birds under the impression that this music needs more help of its interpreters - than it does. Keenlyside then ardently, warmly limned harmonic change within line starting with 'Der Lindenreis'. To fine scurrying accompaniment for 'Blickt mir nicht', he made fine expressive contrast between mild scolding to self-reproach and sweet affection, similar to what Mahler felt in writing it.

At such moderate pacing encountered here, 'Um Mitternacht' offered too well colloquial option of the path of least resistance. Contrasting verses to it, with fine Rotterdam solo winds left practically on their own to characterize their lines, glibly each lacked individual profile. Spacing of chamber music concertato from among them became indecisive soon before affirmative conclusion to this song. Casual fusion worked in of bending brass during climactic lines to this strongly hinted at encroaching ironically postmodern take on it all - for which Mahler himself hardly could have been inspiration. Other than to be easily shirked off, so weightless, inconsequential an impression got left in place of awe. Pardoning several weak low notes, Keenlyside evinced some grasp of what mysteries this song can reveal, but hardly intruded upon anything to make much of what opportunity here he might have availed himself.

"Ich bin der Welt' with flat-line assumption of opening lines from English horn, took several lines for it to get off ground. Slightly throaty first entrance by Keenlyside made one wait momentarily for him to achieve good measure of what he was singing. A line such as 'in meiner Himmel', while sincerely felt, still got worked - as to compensate for much homogenizing, streamlined profile of all about from Nezet-Seguin. It became all too predictable, my favorite among the Ruckert Lieder coming to so dour and gray a conclusion, devoid of magic, as it did here.

Nezet-Seguin's interpretation of the Beethoven Third Symphony came packaged with apparently intent to shock, but little achieved other than cheap effect - ever lurking about a self-satisfying ability to pull off handful of stunts without the thing altogether falling apart. Here is what might please the avid connoisseur, conducting student, or hybrid thereof to be up on the latest tricks, but little of which to work toward clarifying structure, dramatic argument, or even to be able to establish any frisson with such.

One thinks back to Sinopoli with at times his maddening attempts - maddening with him because with him at least there was still contact made with score in front of him. Here was an attempt to go well beyond – perhaps toward attempting to prove one's self somehow above, beyond the fray. Bernstein's old CBS first recording of 'Eroica', deemed so highly episodic, now seems close to all of one piece, after hearing this. One, in even a post-existentialist sense, got left asking so many questions not of overall argument here so much as of what wide variety of individual sub-phrases therein could as detached 'events' each on their own have to say.

First movement opening chords were raucous instead of both confidently in tune and including healthy thrust expected of them. Stabbing 'period' accents got layered onto natural laendler accenting written in, as responding to indecisively shaped first theme in cellos; harmonic spelling through internally contrasting laendler chords got ignored. Randy toned brass then sounded at ready to frame jazz riffs from the rest in leading what tutti that then emerged. Combination of shaky intonation and weak rubato from winds on second theme should have compelled one to reach for bottle of dramamine. Most vulgar, utterly verging on parody was the hatchet clipping of second beat on vigorous closing theme, especially considering Nezet-Seguin's crudely Romantic weighting of vigorous tutti offbeat chords to crest next surging line through this.

Nezet-Seguin then carelessly shaped the opening to the Development section; most disorganized was buildup through slapped at dissonances toward climax. Half-tone disonnances at most critical point got undercut by safe emphasis instead on less dissonant pitches in the chord. Subito piu mosso shift, unmarked, in retreat off the chords made way for most casual salsa-inflected introduction of 'new' inversion theme in the winds. Heavier emphases than for which Nezet-Seguin is adept characterized the usually vigorous retransition preceding first reprise of the 'new' theme. Ear-sore of a shouting contest ensued to form apex to heavily regrouped opening to the Recapitulation, but good strands thereof Nezet-Seguin let capably coast through before making wildly incoherent contrasting accenting out of ending the first movement.

The Marcia funebre opened with tentative negotiation of how to calibrate distended shaping of its theme with accompaniment beneath. Bowing and accentuation for full strings’ consequent to the theme got shifted twice within one phrase - with Nezet-Seguin changing all of it out for revisiting same place during the Recapitulation. Up to crudely 'period' accenting closing chords to each half thereof, phrasing of the Maggiore episode was also indecisive. The fugue here then proceeded coherently – but with further silly contrast of Romantic shaping with 'period’ accentuation. Very irregularly accented also was long submediant chord (A-Flat Major) on sagging trumpets into sound-decay infused diminished chord right afterwards. Hard slam to open the coda section hardly bespoke anything eloquent or noble about Nezet-Seguin's approach to everything here; it then hardly sufficed that he opted for making subdued the dying away, as-composed broken lines concluding it.

The Scherzo then lumbered, lunged forth in an alternatively tubby or flat-line, hectoring manner, making unbecoming the appeal of what invitation overtly rides its surface for going out on excursion into the woods about. Affectation of valveless achievement of cadences freely followed the Romantic modern approach from good horn players for the Trio - in keeping with the rest of the non-argument in play throughout. At least, pace remained vigorous, mostly unencumbered through an equally arbitrarily accented Scherzo as all the rest.

Unbecoming in making either good accenting or intonation was how strings made their descending run to open the finale. Lighter, overtly dance-like motion through the finale accommodated Nezet-Seguin’s approach better than did the first two movements. Insistence during episode of chatter in the flutes got so pushed as to practically make Messiaen out of it. Still, something a little farther reaching than episodic here still remained beyond grasp at finale’s conclusion - after futile attempt to grandiosely make something cumulative – verging on self-parody instead - out of fullest moments during Andante epilogue right before clattering rush to the very end.

Prom 57. Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska. Gil Shaham. Helena Juntunen, Charlotte Hellekant, Eric Cuter, Neal Davies. BBC Symphony Chorus. Royal Albert Hall, London. August, 28, 2010.

Night after performing a questionable edition of the Bruckner Fourth Symphony - with annotation leaving it unclear as to what it possibly could have been, the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska surprisingly found better footing with their second concert at the 2010 Proms. Their very well played Barber and also acerbic Shostakovich (with decent soloist in cellist Alisa Weilerstein) their first night was still worthy of note.

Gil Shaham (replacing Lisa Batiashvili on short notice) and Osmo Vanska sounded to have come from almost opposing perspectives for the Berg Violin Concerto. It quirkily represented interesting meeting of two minds here - if not always compellingly so. Vanska brings to the table a 'period' driven adherence to text in front of him, deemed ‘fundamentalist’ - that quite frankly disallows some flexibility in his interpretations at times. As overtones are not written in, gut strings often do a mediocre job of reproducing them - Minnesota strings here modern but affecting 'period' by limiting vibrato.

Berg, especially but not exclusively with the Violin Concerto, implicitly inculcated back somewhat thoroughly the overtone series into the emergent Schoenberg devised twelve-tone system that only had thrown out the suggestion part of the way of there remaining any tonal hierarchy. In doing so, Berg had introduced a new dialectic most likely inevitable from amongst the triumvirate anyway. In taking a stance with the Berg of stressing the modernism, dissonance of his writing at a little expense to the rest, one ideally can look back to an especially younger Pierre Boulez. Osmo Vanska’s results may approach something similar, but (source of) information, impetus behind Vanska taking on Alban Berg is much different.

With acutely probing microscope on notation to open the Berg, things moved clearly note-by-note on divided spelling of the row getting passed around. On first impression, jarringly, Shaham then developed openly violinistic in place of more purely fantasia like assumption of line to follow. Ultimately it was no more grand-standing from Shaham than some lack of assumed needed orchestral weight to support him and ideal interpretive freedom thereby. Being written so close in spirit, even style of figuration to Lulu, the violin part here affects so well paraphrasing there being some still yet undiscovered vocal line as factor here.

Shaham came up slightly short in balancing full cantabile of his lines with the internal architectonics of the unique tone row here. In working with someone also approaching this music externally, Shaham’s thoughtful assumption of his part was still often fine. Moment of losing intonation on double-stops upon starting laendler half of the first movement and making too openly improvisatory some of the cathartic opening half of the second movement weighed in slightly. The orchestral sequence of inverted diatonic triads from especially cellos also lost intonation. Compensation arrived with the care with which Shaham made chamber music with good handful of first stands onstage.

Shaham delicately traced segue into coda to the opening Andante, off lightly, freely managed long sequencing of rapid sextuplets - then into riskily broad handling momentarily of arrival at the coda. He then quickly recovered full interpretive focus with passionate inflection of his lines. Swooping upbeats in following laendler more overtly than how to keep at forefront the bigger picture stressed the grotesquerie of Alban Berg's seemingly besotted ways. This then hurt Shaham by luring him into broad-brush handling of further sextuplet action as obbligato over boorish tuba continuing the laendler rhythms. Even with generally good feel for this music’s character – Shaham especially infusing Manon Gropuis as portrayed here with strong element of caprice - slight rushing from pair of flutes over sax obbligato, then clipping of the Carinthian tune breaking in evinced an element of timidity, glibness in being able to fully engage with this music. Interaction between broad taking on of strands of laendler refrain and sensitively limned solo flute and clarinet obbligato was thought-provoking, further establishing amicable interaction in play between two different approaches to this music - all to have, even precariously, happened with only minimal loss of focus throughout.

Complexity of tackling the accompanied improvisatory writing to open the second movement evinced at once a broad approach - as though to defy weightless perspective Vanska and his Minnesotans provided Shaham. Brass mildly clipping their detached figuration, sounded choppy. Shaham wisely remained deliberate at imitating the brass – to eventually find good, harmonic ear influenced support from flute and oboe obbligato.

Shaham’s well played, lightly accompanied cadenza came across somewhat high and dry, as though to anticipate degree of weightlessness in how all would combine for running Bach chorale-based canon through the Adagio - for which Shaham sensitively adopted role of one further first stand among Minnesotans. He achieved very convincing unity with them at last - for sublime, if on terms of harmonic weight, spacing alone, a two-dimensional perspective on the Berg. Eventually toward draining this music of all emotionality, playing early on during the Adagio was hauntingly beautiful - after honing in with unusually probing accuracy on retreating brass lines through lowest voices coming off satisfactory climax to the Allegro - readying one well for preparation of the Bach chorale. This performance, though mildly eccentric, made no exception in offering chance to absorb a fresh perspective on this music.

Compared with previous Beethoven from this team, a more enlightened, flexible manner of shaping Beethoven seems to have established itself. Though a drier realization of the Beethoven, especially with it being the Ninth, I can not resist suggesting some possible comparison with what was deemed not long after its release as proto-'period' Beethoven – Concertgebouw cycle on Philips under Eugen Jochum. There is hardly any denying how Concertgebouw wind playing seldom gets rivaled anywhere else.

A moderately brisk pace allowed refreshing space for clean-cut, slightly dry playing to open the first movement - to some ears perhaps short-circuiting the air of mystery to this opening - but in context of all transpiring here worked just fine. Spelling of the loud diminished chord right before first major cadence therein was more distinctive here than norm for 'period.' Pardoning a little flaccidity with thirty-seconds spinning off the second theme, shaping for the idea itself was lyrical, unforced, and supple. Unencumbered by stylized conceits, Vanska made speak voicing through marking of harmonic changes during the Development; preparation for fugato to follow was clear well ahead of time, all maintaining tone of an intimately brooding, yearning character. Palpable sense of tension remained through Beethoven's harmonically deferring retransition, winding eventually up in slightly undercut statement to open the Recapitulation. Shaping thereof was slightly less assured than of parallel Exposition - without but seldom any loss to focus to playing overall. Vanska closed a fine first movement with nobly shaped cortege, sung well by his woodwinds, marked well by brass - just past unyielding segue into it.

One frequently expects, not only in 'period' Beethoven Ninths long by now a heavy clipping of the opening of the Scherzo that then throws off all accenting and shaping of its lines. Fortunately such clipping here reduced itself to nearly imperceptible, helpful toward line coursing through it to maintain pulsation, lightly animated lift and shape. Separation of winds from the rest was most distinctive. Bucolically, joyously, so obviously at first was accented on downbeat upbeat dancing cadential figuration from woodwinds. It took into the Development for one to encounter any loss of concentration - such detachment to have occurred possibly having been on purpose - with such strong marking of timpani to follow. With excellent solos from Minnesota winds, folk quality of tune for the Trio section clearly spoke forth - all to have distracted from some lack of differentiation to repeats on french horn of main idea for it.

Pacing for the Adagio-Andante, brisk, minimized contrast between sections, but once near end of first paragraph yielded deftly for fine legato played cantabile to freely emerge. Singing tone in principal clarinet completing line up to B-Flat bolstered profile in closing the opening paragraph to this. Minnesota strings made fine cantilena of alternating B section - then gently insinuating in suppler shaping of ornamented reprise of the Adagio. Winds made sunny reprise and hushed simplicity of B and A (as chorale) respectively. Vanska then played it safe with flowing line of sixteenths - in placing violins just somewhat behind winds so lyrically beneath making song out of first theme. Rhetorically loud cadential statements emerged matter-of-fact. Strings were still supple in spinning off - winds then lightly securing close to a gently sublime Adagio here.

Give then Vanska a colloquial slap on the wrists for very unyielding pace on lower strings for recitative to announce Ode to Joy - helping to make transition into starting Ode to Joy too brusque. Finally at last the main idea in play here Vanska had his forces vocalize, simply so - even through loud tutti final repeat of the theme before real voices enter. Neal Davies made spirited his opening lines, if with slightly intrusive tremolo, but balancing out with such some mild choppiness with the big tune itself. Solo quartet to follow caroled what Beethoven has spin out for them, with hardly sign of strain - quite unusually so. Slightly, unusually top heavy final dominant chord framing 'tavern band' variation on the Schiller ode was purposeful.

Nobody enjoyed what then transpired more than did tenor Eric Cutler - heard to unusually fine advantage - everything as bon vivant as to introduce his solo, and without the inevitable crescendo turning into Teutonic fart shouting contest it has so many times previously. Vanska had his winds fully determine the character of this passage, with Cutler and mens' chorus all ebulliently following suit. Close to equally refreshing was to hear then emerging fugato also to come off unforced.

Hands extended out simply, beseechingly so with 'Seid umscblungen' - Vanska most prudently waited for high entering sopranos above men to halo this. Vanska told what Brahmsian, even Brucknerian ponderousness to ensue here to just take a hike, time off, - no stronger reminder of late 1960's Jochum than here. Ample room for all voice leading through more thorough reprise, top-balanced chorally, of the ode got provided easy sway, jaunt above - strongly pointed beneath. Apart from tense high B, Helena Juntinen emerged best during what is often extended mouthwash gargle of extended solo melisma passed between all four voices. Choral forces framed all with glowing translucence - helping make controlled romp of the very conclusion to still a very fine potpourri of much merriment - all eager to burst forth at final cadence. Willing to put aside several lapses, one must’ve left this visit by Minnesota and Vanska, their second evening at this year’s Proms both thinking and refreshed by what had transpired.

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