Saturday 25 August 2012

Proms review: weeks 5 and 6

When humanity, at some final day of judgement,  is called to account and asked what it produced of worth, our defenders can point to Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and say 'one of our number made this'. If it was all that was left of our culture, archaeologists in some far distant century might find it, listen to it in slack-jawed amazement and conclude 'yes, they really did know what they were doing'.

Is there anything else as mind-expandingly strange, exhilarating and fantastical as Gurrelieder? The BBC SO's performance in Prom 41  - played to a half empty hall - has left my mind turning the music over again and again in the days since, wanting another fix of Schoenberg's hyper-colourful masterpiece. Jukka-Pekka Saraste stood in for the increasingly elusive Jiří Bělohlávek, looking a little lost at times, but directing a performance that proved just how uplifting this colossus is. The contrast with the simultaneous Olympic closing ceremony, seemingly a parade of the middle aged and mediocre, was too depressing to contemplate.

Marin Alsop brought her new band, the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra, to Prom 45, opening with an engaging if rather harried New World Symphony. Legendary Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire joined them for Villa-Lobos's Momoprecoce; all pleasant enough but rather rambling. Ginastera's Estancia Suite was better, but the SPSO seemed to be some way short of world class in the music of their own continent.

Prom 46 got the all-too-rare live TV treatment, making for a much more engaging two hours of telly than the 'recorded for broadcast at a later date' stuff that seems to be the BBC's preferred option at the moment. It looked a bit niche on paper - three Vaughan Williams symphonies in a row - but turned out to be a fascinating programme that made a convincing case for the variety and quality of this rather pigeon holed composer. Andrew Manze is more familiar from his baroque violin playing, but did a very good job with the BBC Scottish SO, particularly in VW's 5th. It convinced this sceptic that he needed more Vaughan Williams in his life, so job done.

Overblown Romantic rarities are part of the fun of the Proms, and the LPO brought a great one with them for Prom 48. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony has come in for a fair amount of flack for its perceived gaudiness over the years, but when confronted with a performance as good as this, it’s hard to resist. The score is something of a favourite of conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s and he drew playing of crackling brilliance from his orchestra. Alice Coote made the first half just as special with the most vividly felt singing of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen that I have ever heard.

I missed week 6’s two biggest Russian fixes – the CBSO’s Leningrad and Gergiev’s Cinderella – but Prom 54 brought Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony from a celebrated orchestra/conductor pairing. I’ve actually not heard any of their acclaimed Naxos Shostakovich discs, but their 10th confirmed that Vasily Petrenko is getting some outstanding playing from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. It was an extremely well drilled rendition but, given the relative straightforwardness of his approach, I’m not sure that Petrenko really knows what this symphony has to say.

The best thing in the concert was Peter Maxwell Davies’s new 9th Symphony, being played in London for the first time. It’s a dark and angry work that plays with Mahlerian conflicts of style and revels Max’s command of an unfolding musical thread.

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