Wednesday 27 July 2011

Proms week 1: Rite, Schubert and a visit to Spain

From the festival's first foreign orchestra to chamber music in the Royal Albert Hall, the first full week of the 2011 Proms offered contrasts galore.  None was more marked than the switch in scale between Sunday night's Gothic monster Prom and the Belcea Quartet's Schubert Quintet (19th July, Prom 7) in the hall late on Tuesday night.  In the event, the Schubert was a revelation, both in performance (the Belceas remarkably adept at adapting the cavernous ringing sound of the hall) and in the way that the scale of the music was reflected in the grandeur of the space.  Read my full review at Classicalsource.  Before that, more mixed fare in Prom 6 from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under their artistic director Myung-Whun Chung (brother of violinist Kyung-Wha Chung).  Renaud and Gautier Capucon were certainly emphatic in Brahms's Double Concerto and much of their playing was enjoyable, but they received some leaden and soupy support from Chung and the orchestra.  The ubiquitous Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia followed, though even a cynic would have found it riveting.  Chung and the OPRF were on better form in the Rite of Spring after the interval.  Chung's interpretation might have been considered a little two dimensional; it alternated dreamy languor with frantic energy, which was a valid view.

Thursday's visit by the Halle and Mark Elder (Prom 9) brought a compelling programme of 20th century classics; their Sibelius 7 was well cultivated but those who like their Sibelius rugged and exhausting might have found the ride too gentle.  It was my first chance to hear Andras Schiff live and he didn't disappoint in Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, making the most of this mellow late work and phrasing the delicate second movement to perfection.  Janacek's Sinfonietta is always a theatrical experience, and the bank of extra brass sitting above the main orchestra didn't fail to excite.

Both Thursday and Friday's Proms were broadcast live on BBC4, and I caught Juanjo Mena's Proms debut as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic on TV (Prom 10).  He presented an appealing programme of music mostly connected with Spain, including Debussy's Images and Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain but what struck me most was the BBC's interval programming.  Presumably they are under pressure to produce something for no money, and at times it showed, but it was a great improvement on times past with less inane chat with uncomfortable musicians along the lines of 'why do you play the tuba?'.  It wasn't perfect, but I came away imagining that newcomers might actually have learned something about how the music was written.  A feature on Spanish guitar music dipped its toe into the genuinely interesting idea of how the technical limitations of an instrument can dictate the harmonic language of the music written for it.  The coverage was a little Open University, and there was the constant feeling that there might be a test afterwards, but it represented a welcome improvement.  

Devil's Trill is out of town this week, but will be back at the Proms next week.

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