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.

Friday, May 6, 2011

BBC: BBC SO, Ilan Volkov. Nicolas Hodges. Exposition balancing heroic and abstract ideals. Clarke Untitled 2. Beethoven Third. 29.04.11

Balance between attaining heroism with abstraction eloquently informed thirty-four year old conductor Ilan Volkov – recently music director of the BBC Scottish SO – making guest appearance with the more prestigious BBC Symphony Orchestra of London. He scored a triumph, doing so. Both ideals explored found blithe consummation in a deceptively light, but fully absorbing, vigorous rendition of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

Near same time as his only piano and violin concerti got written arrived Benjamin Britten’s tribute - 'Ballad of Heroes' set to W.H. Auden text - to the anti-fascist heroes of the Spanish Civil War. Auden ventured to Spain himself to offer his help, eventually helping inspire Britten to write this piece. Layout is similar to the maturely realized Sinfonia da Requiem, both opening with a dirge, continuing with danse macabre, and closing with chorale of sorts – finale to ‘Ballad of Heroes’ limned by lengthy melisma enhanced tenor solo looking ahead over two decades to his ‘War Requiem.’

Volkov found more interesting to bring to the forefront than how Britten’s scoring accommodates British choral tradition. Beat seemed slightly unclear for trumpet fanfares emerging - as though from the mist - starting this - more wonky had they played at a well demarcated mezzo-forte. Volkov had line fill out gradually, in place of broadly stating what was facing him instead. Approach of establishing choral parts obbligato to the orchestral line was such, as from which the sung text emerged refined with fully achieved profile – better than the expected norm. Volkov brought out harp gilding of still full sonorities achieved here to just partially relieve the austerity of opening dirge.

Rhythm for Scherzo was bracing, calibrated through Shostakovich like cascade of chromatically descending flute trio, rustle in bassoons – then arch to choral writing fully anticipating ‘Look, the storm come – Now the floodtide and seahorses’ Balstrode starts during Act One of Peter Grimes. Volkov’s excellent proportioning guaranteed throbbing middle section, with violins’ fully anguished descant, its fine profile intact. Tenor Toby Spence eschewed gilding his lines during the finale, eloquently appreciating with firm line the simplicity of how text and music merge, making any belabored affectation obtrusive by comparison. Choral work was very fine.

James Clarke’s Untitled No. 2 formed dark oasis between comparatively simplistic Britten and the ‘Eroica.’ It seemed to ask most of all what defines music. Inspiration derives from equally non-specific titled abstract expressionist works by Clifford Still - museum dedicated to his memory having recently opened in Denver, Colorado. Comparable to Still’s intent is that this music not be illustrative, pictorial, representational in any way – also forfeiting suggestion this could be a concerto.

In terms of exploring resonances, overtones as sustained, manipulated, extended out thereof Wolfgang Rihm’s music also comes to mind toward redefining tonality or tonal specificity as devoid of traditional meaning – all as reckoned for how sonorities, including how those of single pitches will get articulated. Feldman, in opus like Music for Violin and Orchestra, makes his bias just a manipulation of sound, as perhaps just evoking Nature completely abstractly, putting aside all suggestion of tonality, but free too from the strict ordering of Schoenberg and Webern.

Untitled #2 implies some ensuing agon, but avoids it occurring between soloist and orchestra – having it between chords, contrasting aggregates instead. Influence of Morton Feldman on this enterprise is certainly plausible. Clarke, interviewed, suggested thinking about this music as one might rock strata. Episodes during which most all motion, sense of where things may go becomes very static – opportunity for chords, resonances to grind against each other - at layer seemingly beneath this music’s surface – to suggest much depth. Brass slowly shifting between highly attenuated eleventh chords - decorated by quasi-(igneous) percolation of single pitches widely distributed about – grandiosely displayed how static this music can become.

Development, illusion thereof of coalescing buildup of sonorities may loan out hunch that relative stasis to ensue for a good six minutes ending soon before halfway through this 25 minute work might also be illusory. Given how elusive this music seems, certainly also hope for anything representational to emerge, one must choose one’s words carefully toward describing this. Ability to carry on logically though is good, not to make circular logic out of all this - as might the neurotic captain from Buchner’s Woyzeck.

Placement of major seventh chords perfect intervals and semitones apart - how much of Untitled #2 is mapped out - clearly reveals that by no means has order, regarding compositional processes got abandoned here. Likewise this music, as frequently focused, transfixed at times on resonances - reflection and refraction alternating between them - contains some linear aspects, even suggested lyricism by such means. A most elaborate moment or event occurs during introduction to the soloist’s centrally located accompanied cadenza, with brass having set up decent minor ninth pedal point on E and F natural out of which is built tonal environment suggesting E Minor (with major seventh of G-F# layered above). Steeply arched upward leaps from soloist’s right hand then emerge – perhaps with nothing moving in any specific direction, but all suggestive of linear activity possibly internally being integral to all at stake.

Soloist Nicolas Hodges – heard for Elliott Carter together with Volkov at the 2008 Proms - commented that there exist virtuoso things that occur in this piece; his mastery of such was imaginatively complete. Compelling here was mention of passages in which the orchestra can be fearsomely loud to cover up the soloist, value predominantly being what resonance might linger on, once the orchestra has cut off, more than anything (overtly) powerful or virtuosic. The very opening of this work immediately provided deep sense of how ingrained together the orchestral and soloist parts in this piece should be; initial orchestral sonorities organically form out of soloist arpeggios, intentionally so.

Intermittently developing moments of relaxation from predominant oppressive air provided welcome relief, such as right before midway through, a freely moving exchange of sonorities between soloist and strings, brass both anchoring and continuing motion through elaborate disjunctive lines, to comment perhaps on tension or stress still dissembling. Arabesque, as intimated by opening soloist arpeggios also provided fine elaboration on sonorities, wide range thereof and overtones to fully register or suggest.

Impetus Ilan Volkov supplied – going so far as to voice out numerous resonances toward elaborately revealing developed overtones - seemed mostly lyrical, understating orchestra going full out – for instance right up to cut offs from which lingering keyboard resonances distinctively emerge. Within deeper overlapping of hinted, developing motif through stream of harmonic dissonance infusing coda to this piece, light perhaps appeared to issue forth. Much psychologically engrossed density could then more convincingly, freely dissemble. Dedication, focus, invested therein from soloist and orchestral forces alike helped poetically, comprehensively lay out picture in abstract lines and sonorities. All sounded complete, yet supple, plastic. Dip(s) into tonal recesses deep below constant at almost all times, mercurial space above unfurled effortlessly before all.

Out of elaborate runs and figuration emerged good stretto between upper, lower brass and piano aggregating into well sustained pedal in the strings. Pulsation extending out of ringing dissonant chord to follow extended into sustaining stream of dissonance in the strings, portion thereof playing in harmonics. Illusion that some of the writing toward the end could be vocalized became enhanced by interjected recitative for piano, framing thoroughly pervasive shimmer to carry all beyond minimally perceptible horizons.

Human dimensions invoked by quasi-vocalized qualities to finish the Clarke Volkov dragged kicking and screaming back in to render very satisfactorily the Beethoven Third Symphony – more tentatively encountered on one outing by the BBC Scottish before. Spring to opening chords, bracing pace to follow, on merits of Beethoven’s music alone, putting aside excessive ‘period’ tendencies or ‘period chic’ with which to clutter things up, sounded immediately ready to challenge anything obstructing their way, wrest all free from court (and modern) conventionalities. Lean textures generally prevailed, but integrated with full sense of voice-leading, presence of overtones from the big bad Romantic past. Purpose in how Volkov elucidated form and expression, in place of acting beholden to anything else, was abundantly clear throughout.

Sinuous, flowing line coursed unimpeded through opening tutti of the first movement, space supplied to gently mark laendler accenting during second theme, elsewhere and also to designate wistful, momentary rumination upon where the argument has taken us thus far. Such fully prepared terracing, grand scaling thereof into closing section of alternatively cleanly robust and supple shaping of all its lines.

Good sonorous bedrock underpinned start to the Development, saving cellos on forebodingly restated first theme from coming across too lean. Internal complexity through cross motion between first theme in lower strings and downward figuration above got reckoned with full ear for harmonic change through fully, but lightly engaged sturm und drang. Bucolic accenting thus became available in full, especially through insistently interjecting violas – without loss of perspective. Keeping all breathing flexibly in interest of sustaining line optimally well, a little flaccidity threatened to creep in at outset of dissonant stretto to prepare, contrast with more feminine accented re-transition to follow. Volkov however tightened his grip on proceedings through the stretto before too late – notion being to keep things again within human dimensions as opposed to attempting blowing things up to metaphysical proportions.

Sturm und drang continued to course through first theme re-transition, all tensions remaining febrile, rife through all contrasts, buildup, plus regretful tone from retreating woodwinds to prepare flexibly molded recapitulatory statement. Through harmonic transitions, quality of the music-making turned intermittently weightless, but with deeply infused lyricism making all still more specifically profiled, felt than during the Exposition. BBC principal trumpet very briefly broke the spell by overplaying right before the coda, subtonic (D-Flat Major) opening of which Volkov made emerge very rich, as opposed to conventionally docking it. All emerged vernal and fresh through final sublime reprise of ‘inversion theme’ toward lovely legato French horns’ buildup to a very fulfilling close.

Taken at very moderate pace, highly attentive proportioning maintained solemnity of the Marcia funebre – all just slightly comparable to how one often finds Allegretto of the Seventh interpreted. Winds infused restated first theme, following lean stoically profiled strings for the latter, with optimum cantabile. Unison lines in cellos preparing first theme subdominant restatement sounded at once lean and darkly expressive. Stark profile well maintained throughout, a little incipient weeping crept into oboe restating the same – most sublime. Maggiore interlude opened lean, rugged - for contrast very supple open-air infusion of what develops therein, principal trumpet this time spot-on in preparing last rolling cadence to wrap it up. Fugue emerged lean on surface, fully weighted beneath.

Fully Italianate cantabile descant from BBC violins - all rock-solid beneath – alone completely filled out dimensions of approaching crest to the fugue. Simplicity reigned unimpeded into the recapitulation, all then fully sung, starkly proportioned. Volkov filled out trailing off lines, harmonization through the coda very expressively – one slightly imprecise cut-off tiny price to pay for fully vocalized appoggiatura from the winds. Closing lingering off cadence in winds off distraught, fading away strings, without conventional Romantic docking, was sublime, even recalling example of Karel Ancerl.

Headlong rustle with subtly worked therein lightly pointed harmonic shifts strongly characterized an uninhibitedly joyous romp through the scherzo. Tutti immediately upon arrival gave off full rustic frolic. Trio, started by French horns, got off to a hearty start, with fine yielding on lingering phrases extending out.

Finale, strings racing down, began dangerously fast, but clean, infused with the simple joy of taking it on, in place of grand-standing. Variations spinning out from skeleton of a theme got breezily paced, achieving cumulation through opening out of the ‘Prometheus’ theme lithe as is its wont. At continuing bracing pace, fugato to follow maintained internal terraced voicing with excellent finesse; cadenza-like principal flute solo spoke lightly, rapidly - fine space provided him. ‘Country dance’ very joyously to follow hardly could have been better, more freely accented. After sobering ‘Prometheus’ reprise, second fugato emerged supple, precisely calibrated its voicing, through unusually pointed out intro theme descant in violins to fully prepare the brass getting the same – incredible to behold. Lacking such preparation, this passage often comes across detached.

The Andante epitomized nobility sublime, forefront clarinet accompanying concertato in the winds fully enhancing its rusticity followed by strings eschewing common working of violins descending into brass ‘Prometheus’ theme. Segue into anguished violins’ crest to line was followed by antiphonal muttering in strings and winds suffused, distraught, but light. Brass, while restating central ‘Prometheus’ idea here achieved doing so completely, stopping far short of portentousness. It was, as prefaced by simply forward thrust on the symphony’s opening two chords, to singularly depict the heroism of the common man. Open swagger through presto coda, full of life as was the rest of the finale to risk Volkov being again mistaken for Ancerl, simply expressed the joy of being alive.

For ‘Eroica’, without first-movement repeat, lasting forty-four minutes, profundity, proper weight to formally, aesthetically articulate such hardly ever got missed. No other name comes to mind, among thirty-something’s or younger for what could as clearly promise to be a great interpretation of this work.

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