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.

Thursday 30 August 2012

Devil's Trill talks to Richard Tognetti

Richard Tognetti

The Australian Chamber Orchestra returns to the UK for two concerts this Friday and Saturday. I had a good chat with Richard Tognetti, their musical director, ahead of their European tour. You can read the interview at Classical Source.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

James Ehnes plays Bartók's Violin Sonatas

Violin Sonatas 1 & 2
Rhapsodies 1 & 2

James Ehnes (violin)
Andrew Armstrong (piano)

Chandos CHAN10705

Bela Bartók was nothing if not a collaborator. Many of his compositions were written for specific musicians with whom he forged strong associations – Jelly D'Arányi; Zoltán Székely; Joseph Szigeti; Yehudi Menuhin: and that's just the violinists – and in each case those collaborators brought big musical personalities to the table. The violin works have stood as some of the most demanding and spartan in the repertoire; still an enormous challenge to the technique and charisma of violinist and their keyboard partner. Canadian violinist James Ehnes brings an iron clad technique to his assault on the Violin Sonatas and Rhapsodies, which follows on from his widely acclaimed recording of Bartók's two Concertos for violin and one for viola for Chandos. But is he the most compelling of guides to this thorny music?

Many of Bartók's darkest works contain a clear thread of existential dread. There's a tone of hopelessness to them, most clearly heard in his thoroughly unpleasant stage works, the opera Bluebeard's Castle and the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. In those pieces, there's a narrative to make concrete what the music screams at us. The same tone is there in the gloomiest chamber works, ready to be found by musicians able to lift the notes from the page. Take the Second Violin Sonata of 1922. Written for D'Arányi, its violin line hangs in the first movement like a lament carried on a lazy wind, regarded rather than comforted by the piano. Ehnes spins his part with great care; his delivery is nuanced and fragile, but he can be tortured and anguished when required. His faultless technique, though, never sounds stretched by Bartók's enormous demands, and intonation and tone seem precisely weighed at every turn. He's also well matched to his pianist, Andrew Armstrong, a musician of similar command over the cascades of notes.

The same is true in the more impressionistic First Violin Sonata (1921), also written for D'Arányi. It's not a work of quite such determined grimness, but there's still little light. The Adagio is particularly striking: a high, yearning violin line met by granite chords from the piano. Armstrong weighs them perfectly; Ehnes contrasts with a tone of quiet depression. But neither Sonata ever grips completely: in conquering Bartók's strenuous demands quite so completely, Ehnes misses the spontaneity and danger of a performance at the edge. He's certainly never close to playing ugly. Listen to Bartók and Szigeti at the Library of Congress in 1940 in the Second Sonata (Vanguard Classics ATMCD1583) and you'll hear an intensity of storytelling that transcends the initial knottiness of the music.  Their performance is riveting, with a (perhaps unsurprising) feeling of authenticity and directness that’s never been bettered.

The two Rhapsodies, composed in 1928, stem from Bartók’s interest in folk music and are generally easier listening than the Sonatas.  Included at the tail end of the disc is an intriguing bonus: an adapted conclusion to the second part of the first Rhapsody, to be appended when the movement is played by itself.  Space on this extremely well filled disc doesn’t allow for a complete repeat of the Rhapsody’s conclusion with the alternate ending, but the hi-fi savvy can programme their players to jump to the desired track.  Ehnes’s calculated precision is less of a problem in the Rhapsodies, though they do miss the last degree of folky swagger.  In total contrast to the mature Bartók is a brief Andante, written in 1902 in a tiny notebook, totally free of intimations of the music to come.

Chandos’s recording is excellent and Paul Griffiths notes thorough.  “Volume one” suggests a second to follow: hopefully, Armstrong and Ehnes will produce something less cleanly efficient and more open to the grim danger of these works.

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.

Tuesday 7 August 2012