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, September 11, 2010

BBC Proms 2010: Proms 69 and 71. Royal Scottish Nat'l Orch, Stephane Deneve. Paul Lewis. Orch Nat'l de France. Daniele Gatti.

Prom 69. Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Stephane Deneve. Paul Lewis. Royal Albert Hall, London. September 6, 2010.

This was Stephane Deneve's third visit to the Proms, but my second encounter thereof, each time with his orchestra for past five years - the Royal Scottish National. He opened this new program with music of Hector Berlioz. Whereas his stance with 'Roman Carnival' was less reduced to so much hectoring and empty bombast as was his portentous and pretentious 'fantastique' of five years back, it still hardly betrayed there being somebody French on the podium conducting it. The 'fantastique' could only remind one of Solti's stiff Teutonic, dull rendition for Decca with Chicago some thirty-five years back. 'Roman Carnival' Overture here hung together better as one piece. but romanza introduced on English Horn beared down on a bit much and bacchanale to follow lacked more than adequate incisiveness, animation from within (as opposed to just on the surface - bacchanale joined by chorus within opera Benevenuto Cellini itself).

The best orchestral playing of the evening came with the three interludes from opera 'The Sacrifice' by James MacMillan - played like this music is likely in these musicians' blood. The story apparently deals with initially forbidden love between rival or warring clans with violent consequences - that forwards itself within action therein to involve a succeeding generation. The modal characteristics of the melodic shapes and harmonies well portray here the pagan roots of a culture on display. Refreshing for this fifteen minutes worth of orchestral writing in the opera (two outer interludes perhaps collated of two interludes a piece from the opera itself), is the greater simplicity in especially organization this presents for the music of MacMillan. Minimalism, much over-scoring in its usage has made itself a considerable crutch for MacMillan, often hampering before what mastery of orchestration he obviously possesses. His Third Symphony, 'The Silence', midway through its thirty-five minute length makes one hanker for just that exactly - silence. With what few lapses these interludes contain – i.e. the settling for conventional writing to close a mostly imaginatively engaging Passcaglia at center thereof – they make up a staple incapable of prematurely wearing out its welcome.

Pizzicato opening, light marking of theme on downbeats, sounds modeled along example of Anton Webern - development thereof positively Britten-esque instead. One place directly reminds of the middle section of 'Storm' from Peter Grimes - as though it might have been lifted from it and altered just somewhat - practically same scoring for winds and light percussion and equally gigue resembling rhythmic pattern. Much varied instrumentation during first three-fourths of the Passcaglia’s variations rescues this music from sounding excessively derivative too soon.

The brooding quality of the opening interlude 'The Parting, with brilliant flourish highlighting measured tread and chorale (mostly in brass) far below is highly evocative - as this music makes steady progress through remotely related sonorities. A toccata like impulsivity gets the final interlude, 'The Investiture' under way, with accenting in one episode thereof that also holds its own very well – offset by plaintive cry in the winds, as derived from the earlier interludes. Brass triads skipping about by mostly perfect fifths set against toccata motion in the strings animate how this movement opens. Jagged line against steady ostinato later into it left hint of 'Rite' or of same composer’s Symphony in Three Movements.

Central on this program was Paul Lewis's crowning performance of the Fifth to complete cycle of the five piano concerti of Beethoven - equally a success for him as the four previous. The more obviously majestic, or if you will, hieratic aspects of this music interested Lewis less than how they seemed to engage Deneve. My impression perhaps still influenced by studio recordings, my recollection of Lewis's mentor Alfred Brendel playing the 'Emperor' as being somewhat literal, matter-of-fact (a little more so than on the earlier concerti) has remained perhaps a little too much so of a scaled-down 'Emperor.' The intellectual rigor Geoffrey Norris (Daily Telegraph) has found in Paul Lewis’s playing neither got yielded to or intimidated by an element of fantasy and caprice with which Lewis was frequently at the ready to engage the ear. Lewis's sustaining of line through much varied figuration and flourish and most of all through this music's sense of simplicity to overarching cantilena, lyric line was very convincing. By into the rondo finale to this, the admiring Stephane Deneve, in striving for some of what Lewis was achieving, provided extra lift and dimension, even rollicking vigor to its main theme, albeit that Royal Scottish strings sounded slightly ragged in its more elaborate spelling out to open the rondo's closing section.

Deneve's support for Lewis was never less than efficient, but not quite his equal in capturing the imagination Lewis brought to his playing - in especially building a character of subtly, sometimes not so subtly shifting temperament as solo part in this indicates. The enharmonic spellings through shifting harmonies definitely captured Lewis's ear, even if Lewis and Deneve together sounded a bit enigmatic at what mild shifts of tempo transpired - but with what harmonic ear and imagination at work at the keyboard (and warm .contribution from Royal Scottish horns) It took Lewis's entrance in the intermezzo second movement to breathe much life into it; his varied color and ever commanding sense of caprice animated the repetition of the rondo theme across a thoroughly encompassed harmonic kaleidoscope very effectively. Woodwind principals of the RSNO also interacted very expressively with Lewis in their lyricism - in subtly building harmonic and dramatic tension for the Development of the first movement. With Deneve hardly ever below par, even above it on occasion to match Lewis very well, this proved for a concert experience a still at times very effective rendition of the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto. No soloist do I recall more singular at such a comprehensive task as this cycle at the Proms than Paul Lewis. An unqualified triumph, no doubt.

Prommers last year got treated to a highly successful Italian (and for after interval, Roman) themed program by the BBC Philharmonic led by Gianandrea Noseda - 'Pines' also closing it that came very close to making for itself apt comparison with the examples of Toscanini and Muti. Comparatively speaking, the Villa Borghese proms, with lighter sonorities of the RSNO efficiently sounding forth, gave like the Berlioz earlier on this program more of a surface impression than could make for itself also such comparison. Sonorities were appropriately dark for the 'catacombs' pines, but a little want of pulsation to be achieved with more than just adequate depth was also slightly noticeable here. The Juniculum pines - highlighted by bell-like clear, very lyrical principal clarinet solo - Deneve took very broadly, but in taking such risk tension here was sustained and fortunately did not falter.

The Via Appia pines, leading to blazing sound from the RSNO at full throttle for conclusion to this ‘Pines’, started off with same lack as did the 'catacombs' almost eight minutes earlier. This was due to plan more according to vertical assessment of its sonorities than to line coursing up the Via Appia. So much was indicated by making arched crescendo – to emerge from flaccid backdrop to brass first making entrance with the full march theme to it. Attention to all transpiring from the hall seemed rapt; there is little doubt how much Respighi's scoring for 'Pines of Rome' makes it the showstopper it is, even in what transpired here as a merely adequate (though for particular strands through it, expressive) take on it. Such coolness in taking on 'Pines' and the preceding MacMillan perhaps finally at last bespoke some Gallic temperament in play here.

Prom 71. Orchestre National de France. Daniele Gatti. Royal Albert Hall, London. September 7, 2010.

This marked first visit to the Proms by Orchestre National de France (ONF) under their new leadership, that of Italian maestro Daniele Gatti. A conventional mostly Gallic program got arranged for the occasion. Word got out quite fast about a miscue during Procession of the Stage from Part One of ‘Rite of Spring’ – cutting off lower brass for measure or two, leaving remaining brass, other members of the ONF high and dry. Had one listened very carefully – lest Royal Albert acoustics be drier than I imagined – also missing was nearly a beat and a half of tremolo in the violins connecting abrupt stop to the commotion of ‘Danse sacrale’ to fleet upward run rapidly preparing final collapse – perhaps more than Gatti could handle to fit his beat pattern to Rite’s final measures.

‘Rite of Spring’ received a conservative interpretation, tame by any standards – should especially one be hearing this music afresh. High principal bassoon very adeptly, lightly led off fine consort of ONF woodwinds to start things off, yet attention to pulsation underneath much growing activity appeared listless. Placement of high pitched solo clarinet for his fanfare cry sounded indecisive. ‘Augurs of Spring’, with its pounding rhythms, Gatti took at seemingly collegially achieved breezy pace. Increasingly shaky ensemble held back impact of how the stomping dance concludes.. Concertato of winds again lost secure ensemble advancing through ‘Ritual of Abduction’ even with Gatti keeping current to course through it subdued.

Calibration of contrasting antiphony of chords with high descant in the winds for ‘Spring Rounds’ was weak, pulsation to emanate thereof – with rhythm stiffly secure for brief coda to it. Other than for the primitivism of pounding offbeat timpani intact, ‘Jeux des cites rivales’ came across relatively urbane. Anticipation of procession to follow openly revealed weak spots in ensemble, rhythmic organization ahead of time – and the Dance of the Earth picked up an insipidly, casually jazzy feel, – but without sufficiently secure ensemble to match name, prestige of the ONF.

Concertati of especially winds and strings, proved the stature of this ensemble, for the fine textures and sonorities they achieved to introduce Part Two. Into Cercles mysterieux, Gatti contented himself with airbrushing away some definition of its obviously gentler steps. Gatti gave accelerando into ‘Glorification d’elue’ insipid lift, esprit, as though all that should follow should be light. Loose sway to its rhythms were just so to keep expenditure of vitality efficient – only threatening to be reprise of the hoochie-koochie as can be learned from example of both Karajan and Maazel (with New York at Proms two years ago and more so on Telarc). It would have been especially unbecoming, irritating for a French orchestra to pick up on such as well – but hardly anymore inconceivable. Gatti was only partially successful at compensating for overall lack of savagery by letting bass drum have at his part. Things failed to reassemble poise until ‘Action rituelle’ – organized well but its more ferocious accents softened.

Tentative start to ‘Danse sacrale’ presaged prudent assessment of how to start and continue its main section – voicing of loud segue into reprise thereof that clumsily bordered on resembling exercise at sight-reading Brahms. Place for timpani to let rip, as assisted by brass became hardly better guesswork at keeping it together than Maazel attempting it two years ago. Not quite as unsatisfactory ‘Rite’ as afflicted the Proms for three out of the past five, but hardly better than one cut above - not in same class at all with that of the young Ilan Volkov with his BBC Scottish last year.

The Debussy on the first half still fared less well – embarrassingly so at times. Flute principal for opening to ‘apres-midi d’un faune’ provided good, though lightly vibrato laced tone, yet flaccid shape to it all. Gatti then made heaving out of gently swaying reach in full section of violins to anticipate third reprise of the opening solo (accompanied by harp) – as such to then spin off into fine arabesque, but all still rendered shapeless here. Debussy’s prudent marking of ‘Sans trainer (‘not dragging’) went completely by the wayside to effect that a next marking of ‘Cedez un peu’ for hardly much animation gained in-between seemed hardly possible to make anything yield anymore than it had already – without reminding one of one Debussy compact disc I keep around – by aging Celibidache with the Munich PO of Iberia and La Mer (EMI) – that for reason of being unintentionally so risible I would not trade it in for any other. Debussy could not have instead written in any of it any similar tempo shift – albeit for negation to include right in front of it, had he heard this. All this should anticipate relaxed central reverie to follow, but here rendered at general sameness of tempo and with no distinctive shape.

Pace for the remainder of ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ remained steady, yet with excess of love bestowed upon recurring reprise of the tone poem’s opening, making it altogether cloy. Whatever parody or send-up on Impressionism Rene Magritte may have concocted, Gatti made it sensible for Magritte to have been so mischievous. Anyone who might have made such an ‘apres-midi one’s point of reference and already listened to it ten times certainly would have found even the veritably fine rendition by Metzmacher in Berlin seem altogether two-dimensional by comparison. Making something so hazy, gauzy, so oddly impressionistic of Afternoon of a Faun as happened here indeed even more offset any relevant sense of perspective whatsoever. It was such that could have been piped in over street art or fire sale with cheap water colors predominant.- of which vendor might have trouble ridding himself.

‘La Mer’ fared little better. The only issue I had with Jun Markl’s ‘La Mer’ from last summer’s Proms, so deft in touch in being what turned out even philosophically evocative, was with a little thinness in his Lyon strings. His interpretation along with Volkov’s ‘Sacre’ from last summer now has one wanting to invoke either man for strong consideration of what position might open next most favorable for conducting this repertoire before long. As for thinness of string textures, what was one to make of barely audible at all string tremoli at moment of stillness midway through ‘Jeux des ‘vagues’ here (pentatonic spelling over C Major chord far beneath)? Light, deftly achieved play with the waves otherwise made ‘Jeux des vagues’ the most successful of four Debussy movements before the interval, but Gatti’s timidly improvisatory take on the opening of the movement came close to approaching being a Berio-esque handling of its varying strands. ONF strings then uncharacteristically made quite a shouting contest – over brass hardly ever louder than mezzo-forte – just amongst their section, in achieving sufficiently loud climax toward concluding ‘Jeux des vagues.’. Gatti then to pointless extent perfumed the inevitable reprise of harp glissandi.

‘De l’aube a midi’ opened with deep resonance, but with little pulsation to guide motion through it – toward having one hope that it might all be over at a quarter of rather than almost half past instead. Enveloping slight pauses for each strand of activity distracted from hope of building up any overall flow to anything got rendered amorphous, so whispered to be practically inaudible. Supple shape was achieved of opening main idea but solo flute spinning off of arabesque sagged toward altogether losing then all shape. Antiphony of descending tremoli in divided violins got played so softly as to be difficult to make adequate differentiation within it all. Gatti then heavily leaned on muted trumpet line to hold fast ensemble through animated stretto to finishthe finale’s opening episode.

Shanty for middle section sounded so besotted, phlegmatic as to render sensation of all about thick. Should one read BP’s press releases, even more incredulously believe them, one might reckon just a handful of Milk of Magnesia bottles to squiggle about the Gulf might suffice to clean up the mess – or at least keep ‘dem boys at sea regular – ill with gas pains from bad odor all about. (Could Paris’s fashion design and publicity firm magnates, owners perhaps also be Republicans?). Experience of having lived near shoreline across which water has often looked pale shade of vinaigrette – as off Seawall in Galveston – could perhaps make one plenty cynical. Generically universal similar assessment perhaps has been this ‘La Mer.’ Debussy’s marking of Presque lent to anticipate ‘Tres lent’ opening of coda to follow began to all seem an utter impossibility, lest we be in aging Celi territory once more. And so what appeared instead an embalming at sea – to endure perhaps a little longer than half past – travailed on.

Garden variety clipping of eruptions from lower strings to open La Mer hardly meant the detachment Debussy may have had in mind, more than from anybody else cheaply doing so. Much immediately following got heavily compartmentalized. Similarly to moments toward end of the first movement, Debussy’s notable marking of ‘Plus calme’ - for tranquil, expansive refrain to open second half of the finale - became a real impossibility. Connection between lines, following heavily gilded cry in high trumpet to taper off much agitation arising right before, through preceding episode, all got lost for so much nuance layered on. Equal level of massage got applied to lines in the high woodwinds to sing refrain mentioned right above. Hardly indicative of any grasp of form either were the concluding more agitated episodes – trio of sputtering clipped muted trumpets, for so much pointing of them, threatening to derail much else. Effort on final reaches started from lower strings sounded so hard to practically make self-parody of it – and with, for all the effort, ensemble just barely together for a rowdy conclusion to it all.

Edward Seclerson’s assessment of Gatti as restoring to ‘Rite’ its capacity to shock by, hardly more than rare occasion to have missed entrances should have any of us wanting to phone EMS on his behalf should he ever be found coming near the composer’s own 1940 New York PO or one of the better Igor Markevitch renditions. A general shrug of ‘much ado about nothing’ then to anyone who found Gatti’s choice of encore deflating – perhaps his pitch to the green hill toward picking up next big assignment there – Act Three prelude to Die Meistersinger. After a much reckoned slow, but overall just inoffensively dull Parsifal two summers ago, the noble profile Gatti found - delivered well by especially ONF strings and brass – for this brief excerpt’s eloquent lines made for sensible conclusion to an evening of lifeless reading to repertoire with which this celebrated ensemble has been associated for many years.

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