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, September 2, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Prom 58. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner. Lars Vogt. Royal Albert Hall. 29.08.10

There are qualities John Eliot Gardiner contributes to twelve-year running relationship, friendship with the Czech Philharmonic, especially for repertoire on which he is most respected and, evident here, flickers of insight for much else. However, there is at least as much for him to learn from working with an orchestra with so long a fruitful tradition as this one. His reminiscence of the late Charles Mackerras - fine protege of Vaclav Talich - helping Gardiner to ‘driving lesson’ through several Janacek operas was moving - picked up right before airing of brief tone poem Ballad of Blanik. Its very charming simplicity, lack of pretense got represented very well here - with wistful waltz-like step anticipating well the rotating sway that opened middle movement of the Martinu on this program. Gardiner picked up well upon this piece’s doleful, lightly wistful accents to hint at both Kat’a Kabanova and Vixen.

This marked first chance in numerous years to hear the Czech Philharmonic at the Proms – orchestra having worked under eclectic line-up of musical leadership since the retirement of Vaclav Neumann and fall of the Iron Curtain. Carnival Overture of Dvorak brilliantly opened the program. Much orchestral filigree - downside of tradition, according to Mahler, slovenliness - was well pointed here, but eventually seemed to get itself detached from the soil in which it was planted. There is nothing worse, for instance in American culture, than faking in overworked, plastic a manner any indigenous culture - whether in shopping districts or at theme parks – entire absence of genuine feel for being in the real locale oppressive. Gardiner's approach to Dvorak did not glaringly remind of such experience, but it intermittently did come to mind.

Czech PO strings sounded thin, coming off high B, winding down to warmly played wistful episode. Coming off such genuine affection was much expected quickly gathering steam toward recapturing the vitality of Carnival’s opening – with still much overt fuss over detail. The nocturnal middle section – limned by fine concertmaster solo - had warmth, albeit held back by self-conscious adherence to tempo. G Minor opening to the Development section sounded fractious, tempo unyielding – enough to significantly inhibit the character of the writing. All got projected, but without harmonic shifts being able to fully speak. Such eventually joyous buildup of agitation - so pointed by high piccolo trills should there be any doubt – was just that. Joy expressed here though became brash instead – from pushed engagement of energetic reprise of overture’s opening through unidiomatic punched accenting to close it.

So spoke then elusively the Martinu Sixth Symphony, 'Fantasies Symphoniques.', in its unconventional layout of three tone pictures. These pictures abstractly reflect mental states, visions, seizing upon what lay deep inside the composer in writing this music - in place of anything concrete. Given sloppy intonation on Dvorak, Gardiner’s fastidious care over intonation here came unexpected. Martinu’s genius just partly reveals itself in building a veritable kaleidoscope out of mere handful of musical motifs; the very ephemeral quality of thematic material based upon such is striking. For composer rooted in neo-classicism, Gardiner thereby offered a fresh perspective - that is of deceptively halfway making this music appear classical. This however is late-period Martinu – like daunting Fourth Piano Concerto Belohlavek so effectively conducted at the 2007 Proms.

Gardiner clarified well the modernism of this piece. Such perhaps may have blind-sided him toward not quite fully being able to get at the indigenous core of this composition and harmonic underpinnings coursing through such toward helping define its shape. A particular dryness blocking inculcation into this music of a grasp of where overtones are, for sake of clarity, purity, essentially kept John Eliot Gardiner from finding friendliest turf here. Immediately the self-conscious scrupulizing to spin-out of also later recurring episode in quasi-microtonal language to first preface the opening movement was misguided. Out of so much inchoate is the germ or seed from which diatonic spelling develops full expression later on. Capture harmonically of a B natural, dissonant under slowly undulating broken D Minor triad on flute was shallow, making then transition to first episode of the first 'fantasy' insufficiently disruptive - its introductory sharply dotted motif marking the music being jerked back to central tonality of B-Flat jarring - with then descant in thirds ascending, swiveling about by semitones.

Strong pointing of less broken dotted rhythms then replaced their forerunners developing a dance-like pulsation, thus making overstated a 'second-theme' diatonic spelled confident refrain. It was evident here the earnest quest for attempting to delve out classical proportions to music that in its mindset leaves such vague. Motion according to parallel tritone through some of the second episode, of structural importance here, got understated, making fugato therein and repeated note chatter to introduce the third episode excessively busy in quality, whereas it is in such harmony that is the foundation to support and then even offset at once all activity in motion about. Least dignified was the string section almost literally screaming repeated pitches above sonorities neither so thick nor loud it should have been necessary; such lapse fortunately though hardly ever occurred again. After slightly stiff support for lingering concertmaster solo in alt, Gardiner effectively then brought the first movement to a restful close.

Gardiner minded separating out different overlapping strands of activity to begin the quasi-scherzo middle movement. Implied harmonic underpinning to duet of arpeggios in clarinets a semitone apart was weak, coming off much busy marking of figuration. In contrast with Ancerl when refrain within overriding line to all this was reached, Gardiner worked its obbligato in second violins, making fractious what can be shaped in more supple manner; lower brass under too emphatically played arpeggio tremoli in the strings likewise felt cheated here. Stark, abrupt contrasts to get the middle section underway could have stood out more, but from there on out, through the lighter, mysteriously interjected textures of the strange middle section of this 'scherzo', Gardiner caught more flexibly the natural rhythms, life of this music. Gardiner then managed to effortlessly make ample room for momentarily militaristic growing accents in the brass.

Gardiner then made overt contrasting strands of anguished rhetoric to eloquently begin the third fantasy. Arioso in violins threading into a sway of curve-like motion through violin, wind sextuplets had fine profile, but also evinced tentative mastery of rubato. Color for harmonic shifts subtly taking place underneath through first episode last spelling of the wave-like chromatic motif unifying the entire piece was undercut by limited space for line through this to issue forth. Very impressive was the engagement of much polytonal swirling about in agitato second episode to follow - pastoral third episode then evocatively providing brief respite.

The quasi-militaristic character of the notably agitated penultimate episode got overtly thrust forth - alternate valid option being the appraisal of such menace as hardly more than just passing or ephemeral. Even here is sense of reality on the ground as hardly substantially more than what will veritably inhabit dreams, visions - to compare with what reality exists for the hereafter. So much activity happens in such small space, that this music in all its mixing things up of tonality and bright color can appear crowded, hectic; it is then perhaps best within well planted indigenous roots this music, its rhetoric can emerge with ample space and clarity. Bohuslav Martinu sought how he could complete finding stronger individual language, persona and simultaneously have such validly reflect and make use of what current advances he could inculcate.

Matthew Crump lightly mentioned in his invaluable survey of Martinu symphonies the Webern inspired integral serialism of Boulez and Stockhausen, having been cutting edge during the 1950’s. Martinu successfully completed finding his own place and relevance for what should long survive him - reckoning too the beautiful simplicity his Memorial to Lidice so simply achieved. Credit is still due a spirited John Eliot Gardiner in succeeding here well at arousing new interest in this music.

The notably non-Czech Grieg Piano Concerto, played by Lars Vogt, got off with mildly uncertain calibration between soloist and forces right behind him – until Vogt’s gracious shaping of lyrical statement of the first theme. Dotted scherzo rhythms to interact between orchestra and soloist was spirited here, if not quite matching between both. Shaping, lovely ardor for second theme, with fine rubato in bassoon obbligato, emerged in full; fantasia like opening to the Development section between Vogt and Czech wind principals likewise became poetic. Past some fussiness orchestrally right before and after, things gradually took on being much more of one piece, yet with Vogt sounding self-conscious during even the challenging first movement cadenza in attempting to somewhat emulate frequently affected pointing in the orchestral playing.

Vogt’s display of technique was encouraging toward all going better thenceforth. Fine rhapsodic shape and feeling was made of the evocative Adagio, albeit with sharp pointing here and there self-conscious from Vogt yet again, as along with riskily pushed opening to the Recapitulation, perhaps guessing at what Gardiner would most likely be seeking. Abetted by very fine principal horn, both Vogt and Gardiner took in very well, evocatively the vista over broad landscape with which the Adagio closes.

The Czech Philharmonic’s flautist sang the rondo’s second theme with such openness for it to be entirely idiomatic to do so – as could have been learned from playing so much charming folk melody in Dvorak. The Mendelssohnian filigree with which Vogt invested his part contrasted well with vigorously, confidently articulated stomping dance that started all off. Vogt provided Chopinesque esprit for bouncing triplet variation on first theme in the coda with fine élan; triumphant reprise of the romantic second theme came off with alternatively brilliant and propulsive flourish, making for exciting conclusion to the Grieg – upon which Vogt followed up with poetically limned, half-lit account of Chopin’s posthumous C-Sharp Minor Nocturne.

Gardiner replicated what virtues and lapses characterized his way with Carnival Overture for Dvorak’s sunny Eighth Symphony. Missed for instance was the natural shape of the waltz inhabiting the third movement – quite common already a lapse outside of ‘period.’ Cellos, backed by warm horns, sang in soulful G Minor their preface to the first movement. As marked some of George Szell’s Dvorak – at least before his late-career EMI redo of the Eighth – the bustle through ritornelli and ambling, cross-accenting bridge theme received more push and shove from Gardiner than was good for him to add to the mix. Reprise in winds of cello second half to first theme, in F-sharp major during the Development, limned by light playing in the strings, was charming; much else otherwise got again too pushed for charm to sufficiently accompany, provide good intonation to infuse vitality of the playing here.

Lower strings fulsomely, prudently achieved solemn opening of the second movement - Gardiner humbly stepping aside for flutes and clarinet on their back and forth calling first theme to naturally emerge. Excessive marking made shallow rhetoric out of loud reprise of the Intro, but with Gardiner making spacious his framing of the light second theme to follow, until so garish, bright a tutti to followi its natural ambling forth. After sober leaning off this episode and preparation of following storm episode, much fuss was made out of the tempest, followed by slightly nervous rushing ahead of the second theme - all framed nicely until overuse of rhetoric for grandiose coda to deftly be dovetailed off, yet without recovering intonation lost right before.

Violins shaped their third movement waltz theme better upon lighter reprise, after stiffly negotiating the trio. Good bounce under violins from winds for coda sufficed, until excessive fuss over so much else. Cellos, after fine trumpet fanfare, handsomely shaped with rubato main theme for the finale. Principal flute, unchallenged technically, got rushed through his elaborate variation. Dry negotiation of chords to accompany dance in C Minor sounded rough-edged idiomatic here until incipiently hard-driven quality to everything again prevailed. Natural shaping of following lyrical variations spoke well; all waited to fully settle in again for haunting variation on clarinet, with string tremoli aloft - followed soon by much brashness bringing this prom - first Slavonic Dance, Opus 46 encore included – to a vigorous close.

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