Tuesday 9 August 2011

Proms week 4: Early Mahler and Scandinavian symphonies

Great art challenges our certainties like little else.  It's part of the deal: we enter the concert hall, or the gallery or cinema for that matter, in the hope of emerging changed by what we've witnessed.  For once, though, in our safe and comfortable city, events outside of the hall seemed determined to challenge what we took for granted.

With a horrible irony that would become apparent only once the news of widespread rioting had sunk in, we stood gripped by the effervescent display of Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony, last on the bill for Prom 33 (Oramo/RSPO/Ott - Sibelius/Grieg/Nielsen - 9th August).  As Andris Nelsons's whirlwind romance with the CBSO continues unabated, more people seem happy to cast doubt on Sakari Oramo's decade long tenure at the head of the Birmingham orchestra but there was nothing so equivocal about Oramao's Nielsen with his new band, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.  Their Inextinguishable was propulsive and virtuosic, while their Sibelius 6th, which opened the concert, had been a warm vision of abundant nature and its eventual decline.  Only the orchestra and conductor's accompaniment of Alice Sara Ott's performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto seemed to miss the mark, smothering her precise and ardent reading in an anaesthetising blanket.

As we retreated home with news flooding in via smartphones on Monday evening, Sunday seemed a distant and more innocent time.  Heavy rain and a leaking room meant I missed hearing Prom 32 (Gardner/BBCSO/Tetzlaff - Brahms/Mahler - 8th August) in the hall, making do with the radio instead.  Mahler's fairy tale cantata Das klagende Lied, heard in its original three part form, must have surprised any casual Mahler fans energised into hearing more after the Simon Bolivar Orchestra's Friday Resurrection.  Shades and intimations of mature Mahler haunt its pages, but never his familiar grip on the bigger picture and Mahler newbies might reasonably have wondered what they'd let themselves in for during its 65 minute span.  Others more familiar with the work have suggested that it wasn't helped by the Edward Gardner's direction, but I for one found my mind wandering elsewhere.

There could be no risk of inattenetiveness in Christian Tetzlaff's vigorous and slightly scary performance of Brahms's Violin Concerto, though.  Tetzlaff exploded out of the starting blocks and barely let up from then on, producing one of the swiftest renditions of the concerto that I've heard.  It was frantic and strangely riveting stuff, grabbing us by the scruff of the neck with Tetzlaff's penetrating and brittle tone driving home the point.  All the wildness got a bit much in the last movement, though, with Tezlaff sounding increasingly ragged as he flew to the finish.

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