Friday 6 March 2015

Runnicles: best after Berglund

In Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, that is (and only connect: Paavo was left-handed and so is Donald). I flew up to Inverness for a mere 20 minutes’ talk on this and Sibelius’s links with Beethoven, very much interconnected in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s programme with mighty Donald (how lucky they are in the commitment to his homeland of one of the world’s best conductors).

The flight passed over snowy Cairngorms and flights of geese beneath before a taxi sped me to the town on the river Ness, rushing at high level past my hotel and the Eden Court Theatre on the other side where the concert was held. The place enchanted me in the bright, cold weather with only the occasional snowstorm, enhanced by the knowledge of those mountains to the south and no major settlements to the north.

I last came here with dearest Lottie in 1983 to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on its steam-train trip to the Kyle of Lochalsh (the best perk of being the SCO’s ‘student publicity officer’). We stayed in the youth hostel which, my taxi driver told me, has since burnt down, leaving enough of a shell to save and within which, perhaps, to rehouse the museum, currently stuck in a concrete box. His lilting accent reminded me of the Invernessian charm. News of my business there, and mention of Sibelius, led him to tell me of a Scot he knew called Greig who lived in Norway and reversed the e and i.

We could live here, I foolishly thought, enticed by the nearness of wild nature and the fact that on the Saturday morning before my early afternoon flight I walked half way to Loch Ness along river and canal, greeting lots of locals – cheery at the sun, no doubt – with their dogs: any town where the country is so imminent has my vote. Lewes would probably be a more practical suggestion but heck, a castle here wouldn’t cost half our flat thanks to the insanity of the London market.

Alas, I left my camera behind and my mobile phone was in transit from Aix-en-Provence, where it had fallen out in a taxi, so no shots of the fast-flowing river or the thousands of snowdrops and crocuses along the way. Here’s a generic photo of the Eden Court – no architectural masterpiece, but you get a sense of its riverside setting.

As for talk and concert, I thought I’d better draw the threads suggested by the programme together: Sibelius and Beethoven, the painstaking path both took to the final results (Beethoven 9 finale, Sibelius 5 versions 1 and 3). Runnicles’ coup, after a first half balancing a Sibelius Finlandia which was never overbearing even from my second-row seat with an intonation-perfect, meaningful-in-every –note Alina Pogostkina as soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto (still boring to me despite that), was to follow the end of Sibelius 7 with Beethoven’s Leonora Overture No. 3 (the same C major). My blind spot for so many Beethoven scores meant I still didn’t find it as meaningful as the Sibelius symphony, but that was a beauty of a performance, every tricky tempo change seamlessly negotiated and the climaxes falling where they should. Delighted to find this sketch on

Predicting success from what I knew of Runnicles' flexible style, I’d made an unfavourable comparison in the talk with Rattle’s Sibelius cycle so fresh in my head: this is a work that Donald knows how to negotiate, on a first attempt by the way, and Sir Si, for all his strengths in Sibelius 1, 2 and 4, doesn’t. A lady in the interval ticked me off for setting one above the other, and she did it with typical Scots abruptness, not prepared to hear me out. But against that, there were five folk with whom I had really lovely conversations, including the local worthy who remembered Neeme Järvi unveiling the plaque to the new theatre. That wasn’t all to the good: the theatre had lost several hundred seats in the revamp, meaning that they couldn’t afford many visiting orchestras because they couldn’t sell as many tickets as they had before.

Still, this event was packed. A fine crowd; they deserve more music up there. And I loved meeting the very thoughtful and friendly Donald as well as Alina (pictured above) afterwards, thanks to the kind offices of the excellent Andrew Trinick. I mentioned the superb performance she gave of Widmann's Violin Concerto in Bamberg and our conductor was keen to hear a recording of it.

Now I’m in Glasgow after another talk, another great concert, enjoyed with the adored godchildren studying here, Evi and Alexander. I hadn’t intended to write about it but was so impressed by the sound coming from the orchestra under Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto that I just have, with a disclaimer, for The Arts Desk.

Work proceeds inspiringly on listening to all the Sibelius 4s for Radio 3’s Building a Library: halfway through I’ve found one which will be hard to beat, a real surprise to me at any rate. But I can’t say more about the performances; suffice it to say that being immersed in this dark, if not black, work has not been depressing – past an early dip, extrovert performances raised my spirits and the perfect construction amazes me more and more.

Another seminal work of  around the same time, Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano Op. 11, was beautifully argued in word and performance by young Jordanian-born, British-trained pianist Karim Said (pictured above) the other week. The circumstances were remarkable: an evening at Lady Valerie Solti’s house, organized by Norman Rosenthal. Said was promoting his new album on Opus Arte, hence my invitation from the recording company.

What artistic treasures – one never knows if it’s legit to list them or not – and what unshowy good taste, much like the lady herself. She came to the rescue when I asked where Strauss, at whose funeral Solti conducted the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier where the ladies famously broke down one by one and came back in again to reach the end -  was among the pictures in the music room. The photograph in question – the old composer on his 85th birthday celebrations working with young Georg (Valerie referred to him throughout as ‘Solti) – seemed to have disappeared. She found me an unsigned copy, wonderful to see. Naturally it's not available, but I think - I may be wrong - that this photo of Strauss conducting also dates from the time of the celebrations.

A portrait of Thomas Mann led to a conversation about Joseph and his Brothers, which I’ve just begun and, contrary to fearful expectations, am bathing in its serene mythic re-interpretation. ‘Solti’ read one of its four books every summer holiday, and when he finished, went straight back to the beginning. I can already understand why.

Said’s concerts will always be a success if he presents them as revealingly as he did this one, explaining why the Schoenberg shouldn’t be seen as difficult music: how it should waltz and entertain. In that small space, the resonance of the Steinway could be overwhelming, and it is perhaps a little too often on the CD too; a few more genuine pianos wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s no doubt about Ashkar’s lively intelligence, re-creative art and knack of good programming. The Berg Sonata actually made sense and flew by for once rather than sounding like an improvisation, though the improvisatory quality was still there and the becalmed ending seemed like the goal of all its labours. Fabulous neoclassical Enescu, too. The promotion did its work: I’ll be seeking Said out from now onwards.


Susan Scheid said...

That site is marvelous, isn't it? And this reminds me that Vesa Sirén, who, I learned, is the chief author of the site, had an extensive interview with Rattle in conjunction with the Sibelius cycle in Berlin. Did you happen to see the interview? Rattle and Oramo (I'm thinking now of your TAD interview) do have quite different thinking about conducting Sibelius. I was surprised, and bothered, by some things Rattle said, amongst them that Sibelius needed "help,” seeming to take his cue from Berglund, who said the same, so interesting to see Oramo disagreeing with that head on in your interview on TAD. I don’t have your ears for distinguishing among conductor interpretations by any stretch, but I was struck by that—and, also, I remain dismayed that Rattle thought it appropriate to play the 6th and 7th without a break, relegating the 7th to finale of the 6th. That all said, I think I can understand the excitement about Rattle coming “home,” and I can’t imagine he won’t be a force for the good. On other things Sibelius, it’s great to know your Building a Library is going well—and that you’ll have a surprise in store for us, too. So glad there has been light in all that dark!

On an entirely different note: I don’t know whether this has crossed your desk, but I was delighted to learn that Alice Goodman is again writing libretti: “a new Magna Carta commission by Tarik O'Regan, set to text by Alice Goodman,” called “A Letter of Rights,” to be performed at the Salisbury Playhouse as part of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary celebration.

David Damant said...

"a few more genuine pianos wouldn't come amiss" _ could you elaborate? In my amateur way I have tried to criticise - or maybe to say that there are pianos as well as horses for courses - but I never get an informed answer

David said...

I've heard enough of Sir Si on Sibelius now, I reckon, Sue, and I just think he's WRONG on 3, 5, 6 and 7. Ultimately, yes, I think he will be a force for the good in terms of wider acknowledgment of classical music, but as conductor - re my Arts Desk opinion piece - I'm not so sure. There are at least half a dozen other possible candidates I'd have preferred.

The Sibelius 4 may not be a surprise to others, but it was to me. Can't say more without giving anything away. And remember, I've still got 12 more to hear.

Good news re Alice, prickly person as she is (to put it in brief, she didn't like her nose being tweaked by a certain person, but again I can't say more).

Sir David, my fault for not italicising. Pianos as in pp or ppp. In other words, there wasn't enough quiet playing.

Geo. said...

Well, having heard SSR's Sibelius cycle via iPlayer, I certainly wouldn't rate it an unqualified success, but for the most part, it came over quite well over computer speakers. Granted, his 3 went a bit slack a bit too often for my taste, and I myself didn't agree with the 7th starting so quickly on succession to No. 6, not because he didn't lead them well, but because one (i.e. I) needed a mental breather after 6. He did the same thing in Philly a few seasons back, I understand. I think he'll do splendidly with the LSO, since these days, simply conducting well isn't enough to make classical music survive. You have to do all the outreach stuff as well, and I think SSR is definitely game for that.

Speaking of the BBC SSO, what are your thoughts on the appointment of Thomas Dausgaard as their next chief conductor? I have to admit that I wasn't expecting this, as I wasn't aware of the degree of TD's relationship with the BBC SSO.

David said...

Gosh, Geo., news travels fast: I had a press release about Dausgaard's appointment yesterday embargoed until this morning (it's now 8am). I'm delighted: TD is a very imaginative programmer, gave us one of THE vintage proms - Ligeti linked to Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Langaard's Music of the Spheres (more of where that came from, please). And he has a radical approach to the classic symphonies, fresh if not always to my taste.

Had actually been hoping he would be the BBC Symphony's new main man, but Oramo came as a pleasant surprise.

You're right about Rattle; it reminds me about Simon Callow's book Being an Actor, where he writes about primary talent not being enough: it needs the secondary talent - the careerism, the savvy, the accountrements - to support it. And there are plenty of folk out there with only the secondary talent.

wanderer said...

The impact of country of birth on interpretation interests me, within the spectrum of other influences, often more dominant (than country of birth). And especially with composers whose works speak strongly of country. Sibelius is surely one. Is there cross-over between the landscape and emotional landscape of Scotland and Finland? I'd say yes.

That said, as a contra, and not to get into a Battle, but for me Rattle's Sibelius Violin Concerto with the COBSO and Kennedy remains my fav. Of course I haven't heard a fraction of the others, but he and the team grasp the cusp of the real world and the other world in the second movement like no other with which I am familiar. Just sayin'.

On the other hand, I heard Mark Elder conduct the 6th and 7th, in sequence, in Cologne, and left thinking wrong wrong -' English conducting Germans playing Finnish isn't the ideal.

Perhaps county of birth of the listener is another thing too.

David said...

Battle engaged: Sibelius is as international-genius as Elgar. You need a conductor with the best understanding of rubato in the Seventh, and Elder doesn't have it. On the other hand, read the Oramo interview on TAD for why Finns are stuck in Bad Tradition owing to charismatic, interventionist masters like Berglund.

Karajan didn't 'get' Sibelius either, but Abbado would have done had he ever ventured down that path (that he didn't 'do' the Elgar symphonies is also a great loss).

Anyway, as I said, I thought Rattle's CBSO Sibelius was much, much more natural than what he does in Berlin. Nige was great then, too. Today you need Lisa Batiashvili (Georgian).

I was thinking as I flew over the Caledonian Mountains, which are part of a range which runs from north America to northern Finland, how Scandinavian that country is. Also in social justice these days it leaves England looking very retrogressive.

Thought it would probably be too much negativity over your wayif I told you I thought what a travesty is Gounod's Faust - and how boring in parts (only my opinion - but Goethe it ain't, while Berlioz comes closer to the spirit). As for Donizetti's Poliuto, even with the fab Fabiano, no, grazie. The summer opera house gems for me this year are at Garsington, where despite the audience I so love the house and the space - Death in Venice and Intermezzo.