Monday, 29 September 2008

On programming genius

No sooner have we recovered, in what is going to sound suspiciously like toadying to my BBC masters but which is sincerely meant, from the Proms programming genius of Roger Wright than we find ourselves caught in the welcome crossfire of the London orchestras and their masters, battling to outstrip each other in a new look for the concert scene.

Of course heady and unexpected brews of composers and various instrumental forces have always been with us, usually in the form of major festivals where sometimes indigestible slabs of one great figure or another have been leavened by the music of their contemporaries. It now seems more the way to spread these festival themes throughout the concert seasons. Gergiev presents 'Emigre', focusing on Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, across the LSO's jam-packed series; the BBC Symphony are rediscovering the great late romantic symphonies with master trainer Jiri Belohlavek in a long-term project which currently features, for instance, one Mahler symphony per season. Vladimir Jurowski has even more head-spinning plans, with connections between seasons as well as between and within programmes. Here he is on the first night of the London Philharmonic's new season at the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall, photograph courtesy of the LPO and Richard Haughton. Downloading to this blog for some reason turns Vladimir blue, so I've taken the liberty of reproducing the photo in black and white.

The launch picked up where the same team's blistering Kashchey double-whammy at the Proms left off. But this time the shepherd's-pipe bassoon of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring snaked out of the silence left by the luminous clouds of Ligeti's Atmospheres. Ligeti's last uncanny chord cluster faded away, Jurowski continued with his clear incisive beat and on we went.

It's not the first time this has happened - two seasons ago with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson placed the last mysterious pizzicato of the Tristan Prelude and into the space came the suspended dreamscape of Schoenberg's Erwartung (that was an easy concert for me to talk before - all three works, with Beethoven's Fifth to follow, launch in mid-air and take some time to let us know exactly where we are. Erwartung, in fact, never does so until the dreamer floats to the surface in that extraordinary filling of the last bars with uprising chromatic scales at different speeds). Yet Jurowski is an even more consistent and intellectually prepared conductor, almost frighteningly sure of what he wants and preparing his orchestra to the ultimate degree. How very different from the fitful brilliance of Gergiev, who ranges from the dazzling and quirky to the sloppy, coarse or just plain wrong.

Some found Jurowski's Rite lacking the necessary element of earth. It was obvious from his reining-in of those first reiterated chords that something was to be kept in check, but that was eventually unleashed in playing of incredible speed and precision, the earthiness just below the surface. I have never heard, nor ever will again unless this team reprises their triumph (which Jurowski often likes to do), the Dance of the Earth delivered with such clarity. It was of that order of execution - Bernstein's Mahler Five was another such - which only lets you feel and shed tears of exhilaration when it's over. And into the next space here came the steam-heat of Part Two's introduction, further graced by the most ravishing alto flute solo I've ever heard. Continuity is an element one relishes the older one gets, and so Jurowski's no-nonsense dovetailing of sections, and between every mood-swing of the final Sacrificial Dance, set the seal of mastery on this unforgettable interpretation.

I've rambled on there - let it rest - and almost ignored the first half. Those of us who had to miss Elder's Halle performance of Vaughan Williams Eight were looking forward to hearing it for the first time live: again, what supremacy of effect and orchestral colour, what fun with the Chinese gongs and the bells in the finale. Clearly Turnage's Mambo, Blues and Tarantella wasn't going to be dull, and he did his characteristically vivid stuff with drums v violin (Christian Tetzlaff) in the Mambo. But how right Richard Morrison was to describe the Blues as the Greys - here we entered the mindfug of undistinguished contemporary lyricism. Turnage can do the lyric stuff - Blood on the Floor had me in tears with the big sax solos, elegies to his brother who died from a heroin overdose - but only when he sticks closer to popular culture and abjures the swamp of serialism. Never mind; you have to keep trying with new works, and now that Jurowski and Salonen are here to lead the scene, we can be sure of a happy balance not only in the programmes but also in the audiences.


JVaughan said...


I have been _MOST_ remiss in not returning here after my first visits as well as not having written to you after reading your rather-short, yet _EMINENTLY_-sensible, book on Elgar, which I wished to read in light of our first personal exchanges of a while back. Yet I would guess that your busy season has returned, and thus any personal correspondence from me might well be problematic at present, though still tempting.

I _DID_ hear the Proms VW _8_ via the Internet, and, while I felt it was good, I have been lately spoiled by a sonically-problematic, yet _MOST_-effective in my opinion, Barbirolli recording (not his first one from the 50's, but a later live one in stereo), with what I feel is a _SPOT_-_ON_ tempo for the Scherzo and an interestingly-phrased account of the slow movement instead of what seems to be this generic basically-continuous legato! Again I am hampered for not being able to see a score, but wonder how VW himself marked it, though he seems to have allowed for a range of interpretations of his music, and, of course, this symphony is dedicated to "Glorious John!" Though still probably not among my very-favourite VW works, this performance went a _LONG_ way toward causing me to like it more, and I hope to hear it again on 23 October as part of my annual VW cycle! Yet further, not knowing what coverage was given here to the regretable death of Dr. Handley, his recording of the _Sixth_ joins this cycle this year in place of Sir Adrian's stereo version, though I _MIGHT_ restore his account of the _Ninth_, having played Dr. Handley's version soon after he left us. I keep meaning to explore the Bax symphonies, and have been thinking about that again as well, though critical commentary, while mostly favourable, is slightly divided on some of Dr. Handley's accounts of these works. Yet I personally would be inclined to trust his instincts here, given his fervency about this composer, and also expect reasonable clarity of textures despite Chandos's tendency toward varyingly-spacious acoustics. Yet further, as did his mentor, he usually divides his first and second violins to left and right, as still was mostly being done at the time these symphonies were being written. I wish he had been well enough to conduct his Prom so that we could have heard what he does with _The_ _Garden_ _Of_ _Fand_, not to mention wondering if he would have conducted Kennedy in the Elgar _Concerto_ in the same basic manner as Maestro Daniel did, likely since I hear that the soloist usually has most of the say in the interpretation of a concerto. Despite what could have been regarded as some extremes, I liked that performance better than the highly-regarded studio recording he made with Dr. Handley. And speaking of both Elgar and Sir Mark, I _EAGERLY_ await the latter's forthcoming recording of _Gerontius_, feeling that, if all three of his soloists in this live recording do what they are capable of doing, we might be in for _THE_ recording of this work, though Sir John's justly-famous account should not be entirely eclipsed!

Since this is _NOT_ my blog, I probably should close soon, though I would close by saying that I would be interested in discussing the interpretation of Tchaikovsky's _Fifth_ _Symphony_ with you now that I know you have written about that famous composer as well.

Hoping that this finds you and yours well, and with many best wishes,

J. V.

Geo. said...

Have only recently discovered your blog, after reading your articles in BBC Music Magazine in the past on the other side of the pond. Speaking of Robertson, that Wagner-Schoenberg transition isn't the only time he's done that, if this 2005 New York concert is anything to go by (while we're remembering Paul Newman).

Had I been in London, I would have been very happy to hear the opening LPO concert of the season, especially for RVW 8. But the realities of geography intrude.

David said...

Greetings both,

How exciting to have some correspondence again after a bit of a gap. I know friends have problems with leaving comments because they have to sign up to the Google/Blogger scenario, which most aren't willing to do.

JV, I guess you saw the homage to 'Tod' earlier - it was, as I wrote, strange indeed that the VW/Holst/Xenakis programme should have fallen on the same day as his death.

Those lucky enough to hear Nigel's Elgar at the Proms picked it out as a highlight. He can indeed do the serious stuff when he wants. I still adore that recording with Handley, though.

Tchaikovsky Five - do you mean interpretations in general? Or are you referring to the Simon Bolivar/Dudamel recording I referred to earlier? I still haven't had the privilege of hearing it. But for what it's worth, my ideal Fives are Abbado, Muti and Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (played continuously, and with passion).

George, that's very interesting about Robertson segu(e)ing from Ives to Copland. I wonder what other examples there are? I bet Ivan Fischer has also done something of the sort. He recently conducted Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra with only a second or so between each movement.

Best to both,


JVaughan said...

Finally, lest I forget (and I nearly did), I did read your tribute to Dr. Handleyy later, and yes, that programme was indeed appropriate as a memorial! As you presumably saw above my first, and this, comment, I am a Blogger subscriber, and, for what it is worth, have an inactive blog at

A touchstone passage for me in the Elgar is the one for strings following the soloist's first passage in the slow movement, I preferring it broad, as the composer conducted it with the future Lord Menuin and Sir Simon did in the second Kennedy recording, etc. I recall Dr. Handley conducting that passage faster, as Sir Adrian did for Maestro Menuhin later. This latest performance contained _MUCH_ rubato throughout, and the faster speeds were possibly the fastest I have thus far heard in this music, but somehow it all seemed to work! One hopes that, as a possible memorial and/or given the high regard in twhich this performance was generally held, will see fit to eventually issue it on CD if all contractual obstacles, if any, can be overcome!

As for Tchaikovsky _5_, I was speaking of interpretation in general, how this music was performed in Tchaikovsky's time if we know and what guidance, if any, he might give us outside what he has marked in the score. Heretofore my two favourite recordings have been the first Mehta, with the Israel Philharmonic, and the Solti/CSO. Yet, in their respectivee First Movements, they contain a now-unfashionable accelerando/stringendo leading into the first big tutti of tthat movement, whereas now most conductors seem to take it in tempo and at the slower tempo at which the opening of the main body of the movement is taken. Yet further, according to the most-recent _Building_ _A_ _Library_ feature on this symphony, Tchaikovsky prescribes a slower metronome mark for the main body of the Finale than we most often hear these days, a performance which seems to follow what I gather is prescribed being Maestro Ormandy's last, on Denon, and presumably his others as well. I havwe heard the Mutti and at least one Abbado, and recall the former being passionate since his is my favourite _Fourth_, though only specifically recall now that Maestro Mutti also takes the opening section of the First Movement's main body according to the current fashion, in tempo. Again I wish I had the eyesight to read a score, both as to the foregoing and what is to be done with the passage leading into the Second Subject and what rubato, if any, is to be observed in these passages, as one usually hears to varying degrees. And both Maestros Solti and Ormandy take the big climaxes in the Second Movement slower than Maestro Mehta did, Maestro Mutti probably as well. So we come back to what saith Tchaikovsky, and was he prepared, as his despised-as-a-composer Brahms was, to countenance, if not embrace, varying approaches? As both an amateur student of performance practice and a lover of this work (though I may not be quite as enthusiastic about it now as I once was, possibly due to over-familiarity), these matters are of much interest to me! I did not originally intend to air them here, but rather privately. Yet you bated me after a manner, and it would have been difficult to resist!

Hoping again, and expecting, that this finds you well, and with _MANY_ thanks,

J. V.

p.s. I wrote the above by coming through Internet Explorer instead of Outlook Express as before, and thus the compatibility with my reading software which I previously noted must have come through the latter. I thus must apologize for several typographical errors which I am unable to correct for not being able to get back to where they occurred and correct them, and there were further some spelling ones as well, the first of them being on the first occurrence of Lord Menuhin's name. Two others I now recall were Maestro Muti's name and "baited."
Yet further, I obviously meant to express hope that the _BBC_ would see fit to release the Kennedy/Daniel Elgar _Concerto_!

JVaughan said...

And scatter-brained me forgot to say that I indeed subsequently read your tribute to Dr. Handley, and agree that the Prom on the day of his death was surely appropriate!

Geo. said...

I don't know of any other specific instances where Robertson has segued directly from one piece into another like that Ives-Copland one, although I remember a review from last year's Proms (here) where he minimized the pauses between the movements of Beethoven 7. I've heard him do the same with Sibelius 5.