Friday 31 August 2012

Week 7 at the BBC Proms: Visitors from Europe

Frank Peter Zimmermann

We’ve got to that end of the Proms season when the big boys roll in, and this year is bigger than most. As though they were moths attracted by the glow of London’s Olympic summer, the Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandaus and Vienna Philharmonic all appear twice in the space of nine days and while there are some who decry the arrival of the touring bands with their stock programmes, it’s a pretty exciting time to be a prommer.

Prom 57 brought the first hint of that special European sound usually saved for the Musikverein and the Concertgebouw. They may only be (relative) youngsters, but already the players of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchestre seem to have mastered the super refined sense of balance heard in the Vienna and Berlin orchestras, where the honeyed brass tone is a restrained extension of the greater ensemble and the strings behave as though they were one big instrument. That much was immediately evident in the Act 3 Prelude and Good Friday Music from Wagner’s Parsifal, the opener of conductor Daniele Gatti’s wonderfully logical programme exposing different strands of Austro-German romanticism. It’s a cliché worth ditching to describe these operatic extracts as ‘bleeding chunks’; they provide such a wonderful way in to Wagner’s monumental music dramas for so many people – especially when performed as well as they were here – that I have to roll my eyes whenever I read someone reaching for that tired metaphor. Gatti completed to circle at the concert’s end with the Act 3 Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, realised as glowing as the Parsifal.

Frank Peter Zimmermann was a formidable and inviting guide in Berg’s Violin Concerto. In some ways, it isn’t surprising that this is the only firmly established serialist work in the concert repertoire – there’s a tender expressive core to it that makes it so much more than a demonstration of twelve-tone techniques. I’m sure that other violinists would push Berg’s anguished moments further than did Zimmermann, but his was a reflective performance that wasn’t afraid to turn ugly when the music required. And for once, the ubiquitous Bach encore was justified, by Berg’s own delicate reference to a Bach chorale towards the end of his concerto. And Zimmermann’s Bach was its own captivating journey, wringing more intensity of feeling from the A minor Solo Sonata’s Andante than many manage.

Richard Strauss’s sumptuous Rosenkavalier waltzes (patched together later by others and much disparaged in their concert form) made for a revealing contrast with the leaner, meaner waltzing madness of Ravel’s La valse. I’d always thought the Ravel to be extravagant (deliberately and self-destructively so, of course), but it came off as restrained when coupled with Strauss’s excess. Gatti drew tremendously delicate playing from the GMJO, but maybe showed his hand too early in the Ravel by painting the whole in the psychotic colours that are usually reserved for the conclusion. A great concert, though.

I’m afraid I felt a little less enthusiastic about Prom 63, the first of the Berlin Phil’s two appearances this year, which as I write is clocking up more and more rave reviews. Sir Simon Rattle’s programme – Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy and Ravel – looked a hotchpotch on paper and turned out to be in the event. I could follow the thread of the first half – exquisite clouds of melting sound in Ligeti’s Atmospheres flowing without a break into a wonderfully sustained Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, followed by the bleak granite-like blocks of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony – but I couldn’t see the connection to Debussy’s Jeux or Ravel’s Daphnis second suite. Maybe the connection was buried deep, but these Rattle programmes often feel like we are being Told Something and not getting the link just leaves me feeling like a bit of a fool.

But my real problem was how slick the whole thing was. No one on Earth plays with the finesse, refinement and jaw dropping perfection of the Berliners, but neither is there ever a sense of danger or risk. I’ve never heard the end of Daphnis et Chloe more gorgeously turned, but I’ve certainly heard it sound more thrillingly rumbunctious, more like it could explode or collapse at any moment. This is, after all, one of the hardest things an orchestra can play. Listening to this orchestra is like being in a car – a Rolls or something – and seeing the countryside flash past at great speed, and not being able to feel a single bump in the road. A technical marvel, certainly, but hardly the ride of your life.

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