Wednesday 29 July 2009

Launching the Proms Stravinsky

Performances of Stravinsky's complete Firebird (Karsavina and Bolm pictured above) and Petrushka (the composer featured with Nijinsky) are hardly thin on the ground, and have become tests of a big orchestra's mettle as much as Mahler symphonies or Strauss tone poems. If you're lucky, you'll get an interesting juxtaposition, like Jurowski's Proms blockbuster last year which twinned Firebird with one of several operas by Stravinsky's meister Rimsky-Korsakov exerting an inescapable spell on the younger composer, Kashchey the Immortal.

The first of this week's three Stravinsky Proms, featuring Petrushka in a not-quite-intact form, made further intriguing connections; but its real significance was to kick off the spectrum of the 20th century's greatest ballet composer (yes, I know, there's Prokofiev and the greatest full-length ballet in Romeo and Juliet, but even he didn't run Stravinsky's gamut from working with Fokine in 1910 to the last fling for Balanchine in 1957).

For context, you can watch or listen to yesterday's pre-performance talk in which I joined animateur par excellence Chris Cook and Stephanie Jordan, Research Professor of Dance at Roehampton University. A film of the event can now be seen in all its 41-minute glory (?) on the second of Radio 3's Proms Plus webcasts. An edited version was broadcast on Radio 3 in the Prom interval, and is available to hear online for the next six days.

Stephanie covered the choreographic aspects, and I dealt with what I could of the music, so between us I think a reasonably comprehensive picture emerges. Here are my fellow broadcasters on the stage of the alarmingly over-resonant Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall in the Royal College of Music, tarted up especially for these Proms events.

What of the music-making? Belohlavek promised us the 1947 re-orchestrated Petrushka, but actually gave us even less, as BBC Symphony violinist Danny Meyer warned me he would when I bumped into him before the concert. There's an alternative 'concert ending' which rounds off the fairground masquerade with a trill, giving us no death of Petrushka and no ghostly nose-thumbing from the roof of the puppet-theatre; though to my knowledge Stravinsky the conductor never used it when he conducted the complete 1947 version. Glad I knew this in advance, otherwise nine-year old Lucien who joined me with his mother Clare would have been mighty puzzled not to hear what I'd told him he'd be hearing.

Never mind, let's be thankful for what we had: a rhythmically supple, discreetly coloured Petrushka, maybe not as raucous or earthy as I'd have liked, but with polished solos from the BBCSO's new first trumpeter Martin Hurrell - relieved, apparently, not to have to shrill as Petrushka's ghost in the 'real' ending - flautist Daniel Pailthorpe and that consummate pianist Liz Burley. As she and Martin have been regular visitors to the BBCSO course, I know her well enough to ask if she'd meet Lucien afterwards. A fierce steward kept us away from the sea of the concert platform, preventing what would have been an absorbing demo from Liz on the celesta, but at the ocean's margin I managed to get a photo of her together with Lucien by one of the very grand pianos used that evening.

Having exuberantly told me the plot of Trovatore - he knows it better than I do, and stood through it all transfixed at Covent Garden - Lucien was a bit awed by meeting an orchestral star. But it was apt, because yesterday we heard he'd got a distinction in Grade One piano.

Anyway, most of you, reasonably enough, couldn't care less and want to know a bit more about the music. The highlight for me of the two days of Prom-going so far was the revelation of Martinu's Concerto for two pianos. Characteristically elusive in its themes, harmonies and moods, it fitted the washy acoustics well, with outstanding young Czech pianists Jaroslava Pechocova and Vaclav Macha glistening and swimming in the vasts of the Albert Hall. The slow movement is a gem even among late Martinu works: recitatives for the two pianos, poignant wind choruses enhanced by a solo viola, the perfect and tear-inducing placing of a few major triads.

Lucien - somewhat to my surprise - and Clare enjoyed this even more than the fizzing Smetana Bartered Bride Overture and the Bartok Dance Suite, where the muted trombones were a special fascination for the first-time concertgoer. I haven't got L's detailed opinion on the Petrushka yet, but I must make one important point. It sounds a bit 'oh, black people in a concert'ish, but that is, alas, rare, if slowly changing, and so it's worth noting that the beautiful mother with two sons several rows in front immediately rose to her feet in wild enthusiasm with the youngest boy at the very end. The BBCSO's outreach is doing its job.

Yesterday offered a chance for Londoners to catch the exciting work young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons is doing with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Here he is in action last night as photographed for the Proms (as is Hough further down) by Chris Christodoulou. Couldn't make up my mind whether I preferred him looking young and sweet...

or a bit of a monster:

The CBSO/Nelsons Firebird was chock-full of bewitching detail, maybe a little over fussy as is a young conductor's prerogative (the narrative in the first half of the ballet needs to get going) but with daring pianissimos in the opening - inaudible on the broadcast, which I've just dipped into on R3's Listen Again facility - and the clearing of the air after Ivan has smashed the egg containing the ogre's soul. NO-ONE in a packed hall coughed here until the famous horn solo dissolved the tension. The finale, Stravinsky's biggest apotheosis right at the start of his career, raised the Albert Hall roof, of course. But there's tough competition in the memory stakes, and for me this by no means eclipsed Jurowski's LPO performance at last year's Proms or Gergiev's hyper-dramatic LSO interpretation. It did bring new insights and fresh sounds, however, and that's still quite something.

Twenty one minutes of orchestral time - and more immaculate preparation - were more or less wasted at the beginning of the concert by John Casken's Orion over Farne. Impressionistic effects are fine, and Casken can certainly orchestrate, but you need strong ideas too, and the best Casken could offer was sub-Messiaenesque. I'm afraid I knew exactly what we were in for, indiscriminate use of the tongs and bones included, in the very first bars.

Then the much-feted Stephen Hough continued his Tchaikovsky piano concertos series with the Second. I'm a bit sorry that in trying to rescue this concerto from undue neglect - a mission that is worthwhile, for it has some wonderful themes - folk are liable to forget what a trailblazing work the First was for its time. My own personal favourite of the three-and-a-half is the dazzlingly original Concert Fantasia*.I'm not sure that Ziloti's cuts in the Second were a bad thing, at least in the long opening movement; when Postnikova played it with husband Noddy Rozh last year, the recap seemed like one repetitive chunk too far. Hough, on the other hand, rushed through much of it like a bull in a china shop, smothering any wrong notes with the sustaining pedal.

This sort of 'showpiece imperial' really needs an effortless Russian who can manage charm at that level of weighty virtuosity. But SH, who perhaps would do best to stick to Schumann et al but is a brave chap who likes to push the boundaries, did find poetry in the lyrical respite of the first movement and - along with a few extra twiddlings** - throughout the central Andante non troppo, where I salute Pyotr Ilyich for a rare vein of Brahms-style objectivity in the violin and cello solos. Hough also whipped up a frenzy in the finale, which would sparkled more if it hadn't been so breathless. Still, it was a heck of a lot better than his Rach 2 last year, very much alive, and the audience loved that.

Balm to the soul, if still a very alert sort of spirituality, was the late evening Prom with John Eliot Gardiner bringing his Monteverdi Choir and a handful of his English Baroque Soloists to the Proms in Bach motets. How I love the numinous soprano chorale in 'Furchte dich nicht'. And when I sang in 'Jesu, meine Freude' we never came anywhere near the rainbow of dynamics and expression discovered by the Monteverdis. Gardiner is a compelling presenter, since he's known these works inside out since childhood. He spoke engagingly of Bach satisfying both hemispheres of the brain, and of course he does. I still want to carry out the unfulfilled aim of listening to a cantata every morning, born during JEG's early St John's sessions before the big Bach pilgrimage began. The welcome stream of CDs reflects the move from this, one of the St John's releases:

to this, as the JEGmobile moved from city to city and went its own enterprising way recording-wise.

Of course, I covet every instalment.

Next stop will be a mini Proms Mendelssohnfest at the end of the week. No, I'm not, unless the Hochhausers can manage it, doing Gergiev's Wagner Ring at Covent Garden. Although he's finally caved into pressure and dragged in a kosher director to fill out his by all accounts unsatisfying ideas, if the concept is anything like the leaden, monumental one he and designer Tsypin imposed upon Boris Godunov on their last visit, it'll be deadly. And there seem to be too many veterans in the cast. I wrote a note on leitmotivation in the programme, but at the moment it looks as if that's as close to the latest Mariinsky experience as I'll be getting.

*where the structure and the interplay between soloist and orchestra are so outlandish. I'm a little surprised to read on SH's entertaining and beautifully written blog that he resented the piano's subordinate role in the Second Concerto's middle movement, and 'reassigned to the pianist some of the music originally given to the solo violin and cello in the recapitulation'. Come on, Stephen, Tchaikovsky knew what he wanted, even if it wouldn't be to the main soloist's liking.
**see the above footnote.


Maurice Chapman said...

from Dr Maurice Chapman, Farnham, Surrey
I enjoyed the Prom interval discussion of last night - the comments which you made helped me get more out of the performance which followed, in the second half of the concert, than would otherwise have been the case. A gentle word of advice - watch for the doesn't show lack of knowledge but it does indicate nervousness, and can be a little distracting, both to the interviewer and the listeners. I know when you are facing questions like last night it can be stressful, but you are there so that Christopher Cook can pick your brains to the benefit of the listeners! You are the chosen expert.
Try breathing exercises and meditation to calm yourself beforehand. But I did find your contributions authoritative and knowledgeable.
Maurice Chapman

David said...

Well, I did blush a bit to let that one go out, though I don't believe in moderating and haven't yet...I thought I was known (or so my partner tells me) for NOT erm-erming, but that must have failed me on this occasion. I hardly ever use a script in lectures and I CAN get breathy and speak too fast - it's a question of delivering at the speed of one's spontaneous thoughts, which is always risky in these live discussions. Breathing exercises would be a help, I admit.

Others can feedback on this once they've listened. It IS constructive criticism, after all.

Chris Cook may have seemed more fluent, of course, but remember he had a script and notes; we didn't.

David said...

Oh, and PS, I actually didn't think I was nervous - I was enjoying myself!

John said...

I beg to differ with the good doctor from Farnham. I was present at the talk, and I found David's body language as well as his delivery very relaxed. He hardly 'ermed' at all and spoke in rounded, polished sentences, all off the top of his head.

If anything, the other presenter 'ermed' a little to start with, but she too relaxed into the occasion and they both gave us a marvellous insight into those early days at the Ballets Russes.

David said...

Thanks, John. I'm fiercely self-critical and liable to beat myself up for such faults but I watched the film and it didn't seem too bad to me. Sure, there were some 'er's later on, but even watching out for them, I didn't think they were excessive.

Anyway, the content's the thing, and I reckon that Stephanie and I carved that up pretty well between us. Always good to have knowledgeable Christopher there too, the best in the business.

Piala Murray said...

Dear David,
Next week I have "the dreaded" appointment with my own consultant at the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, and do you know what, he will speak to me exactly like this: because he is a medical doctor! With so little time and not knowing enough about you, on the first couple of appointments they do generally tend to sound like this for a bit. They're "doing" their job,and then after a little more while, you both start to get more mutual honest understanding and leeway - and defences on both sides tend to begin to relax. Dr Chapman I really think has only gone straight to fixing (and a non-musically connected) problem out of professional habit! So relax, everything's fine, and the talk was great. I couldn't remember any ermings, and any rushing is natural small price to pay for the sheer enthusiam itself at being at such a fantastic festival as The Proms, let alone the incredible energy which you have more than enough talent to communicate and bring across that came together to make The Ballets Russes! Breathe deep, and be well, Piala.

David said...

And thanks, Piala, for maintaining a bit of wry objectivity while I nurse a mildly bruised ego. We critics aren't very good at taking criticism, you know - though God knows I had to take a bit of rough with the mostly smooth when Prok Vol. 1 came out.

toubab said...

hello David, this is just to say thanks for your comments and your greetings on my blog- I admire yours and all the energy and verve in your writing and pictures.
Can't make the birthday bash much as I would love to
All love xxx