Saturday 31 August 2013

Mixed fortunes at the BBC Proms

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski (Photo: Sheila Rock)
The combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and music director Vladimir Jurowski often promises something special, but in Prom 64 we were left waiting a while for it. Certainly, the concert got off to a pleasant start – I’m always eager to hear something from off the beaten track, and if Granville Bantock’s rarely heard 1902 tone poem The Witch of Atlas wore its debt to Tchaikovsky on its sleeve, it did so with considerable charm. It made an intriguing pairing with Sibelius’s mighty tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, whose taut construction and vivid storytelling showed up the slack structure of the Bantock, but which received the less assured performance.

I had to feel for pianist Anika Vavic, whose day this clearly was not. She seemed nervous and uncomfortable in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto from the off, and it was simply a relief that she reached the end, albeit loosing handfuls of notes along the way (including, bizarrely, the entire mini-coda to the second movement). Ultimately, though, keyboard-malfunction-of-the-night went to the organist in Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, who accidentally planted an almighty organ parp right in the beautiful string-led passage that follows the famous ‘sunrise’ opening. Otherwise, Jurowski’s conducting and the LPO’s luminous playing in the Strauss were the highlights of a variable evening, with particular brownie points going to the string section principals, who demonstrated what a fine collection the orchestra currently has.   

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Royal Albert Hall, sacred place

Lars Cleveman and John Tomlinson in Wagner's Parsifal (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Of all the transformations undergone by the Royal Albert Hall, the problematic home of the BBC Proms, that achieved for Sunday night’s epic performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal must rank among the most astounding. The first act of Parsifal – all two hours of it – opens up and up, revealing more and more splendour until the end, when the aged Gurnemanz rebukes the naive Parsifal for failing to understand all that he has seen. A pivotal moment in Act One is the move from the sacred forest of the opera’s opening to the hallowed heights of the castle of Monsalvat, home of the Holy Grail. Gurnemanz sings “here, time becomes space” (a fitting summation of the music’s power – the very first notes of Parsifal set us adrift in time and space by refusing to offer any meter), and Wagner’s “transformation music” describes the ascent to the holy castle and its towering, imposing interior. Once there, two choirs and a brass band, placed far above in the gallery, made for the most stunning rendering of the grail castle imaginable.

Mark Elder’s very slow tempo brought the performance to six hours, but the glowing playing he got from the Hallé as worth the price of admission alone. The long stand (after the Ring, though, it flew by) was rewarded less evenly by the evening’s singing, which ranged from the imposing (John Tomlinson living the role of Gurnemanz) to the anonymous (Lars Cleveman’s unimpressive Parsifal). The remarkable spacial effects will stay with me for a long time, but on balance I’m more in sympathy with Mark Valencia’s qualified praise than David Nice’s total admiration.