Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Czechs in the USA

I like to think the hyper-brilliant finale of Martinu's Second Symphony is a soundtrack to the composer, pictured above with pianist pal Rudolf Firkusny on the left in Central Park, striding the streets of New York like Gershwin's American in Paris. Yes, it's a dazzling showpiece, at least in the last two movements, but there's introspection, too, in the slow-movement homage to Dvorak and Janacek. I find it incredibly moving and troubling the way the Bohemian/Moravian strain peters out. But Martinu was mindful of his fellow Czechs in Cleveland who commissioned the work, so he gave them a few good tunes to hum.

In a footnote to the 'MMMMM' entry, that distinguished polymath Colin Dunn expresses his surprise and relief to find that Jiri Belohlavek's performance of the Second with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Friday didn't come as an anticlimax to the First. Certainly it's lighter and briefer, but it does the D major joy thing like no other symphony. Indeed, I think I even prefer the radiant final chord to the noisier, looser tumult at the end of Mahler Five.

But shouldn't the symphony have come at the end of a long and daunting programme? Swapping it with a quick-witted and woodwind sharp Till Eulenspiegel would have given us depth as well as energy after the Adagio of Mahler 10 (and made sure that anyone caught out by the controversial 7pm 'live on Radio 3' start wouldn't have missed the most unusual component). I still don't understand conductors like Jiri who won't do the whole Cooke-fleshed-out adventure; Mahler's finale takes us much further than his first movement. Still, the BBCSO's Adagio was translucent and painstakingly lit up in its delicate final stages.

I must confess it was the only part of the evening where tiredness took over and I phased out of a few minutes early on. I'd done the pre performance talk and Ann McKay had been whisking me around the Barbican to sort out the BBC box chat with Petroc Trelawny. It made a big different to have the window wide open so we caught the full dazzle of the Martinu and the sheen of Strauss's Four Last Songs.

Some were less than overwhelmed by the delivery of Anne Schwanewilms (photographed above by Johanna Price). I can only say that I find her poised, silvery and sometimes deliberately slivery sound a beguiling alternative to the fuller bodied tone of Christine Brewer or Anja Harteros. All three are the great Strauss sopranos of our time, to which some would add a fourth, Soile Isokoski (and yet more a fifth, Renee Fleming, who can be fine when bad taste doesn't get in the way). Radio 3 listeners missed a visual treat as the statuesque Schwanewilms stood, a vision in purple, with total physical ease and radiated assurance. What a far cry from the angular, technique-defying antics of Bostridge, Kozena and Goerne.

Belohlavek seemed to be keeping the orchestra right down for his soprano; at times, that rarest of events in the Barbican acoustics, a genuine pianissimo, drew us right in to the magic. And we could take it for granted that Schwanewilms would phrase longer and bolder - and at some dangerously slow tempi - than most other interpreters. Full marks, too, to a hushed audience who held the silence. I always remember my English master at school, the adorable Lionel 'Tibby' Bircher, sighing 'lovely lady, lovely lady' over Desdemona, and I feel the same about muse Schwanewilms (who'll be singing Otello's long-suffering bride at the Barbican in December). Do catch her Marschallin on this DVD, which I went overboard about in the BBC Music Magazine. The production swims in and out of focus, but our Anne is alert to every nuance, and the camera loves her.

A quick reminder: you can hear the concert, complete with Petroc and I blethering away, on the Radio 3 iPlayer for the next two days. I'm cut off in mid interval flow - you'll then need to pick up Part Two for the Mahler Adagio and Strauss's Till.

BBC Symphony contrabassoonist and sometime third bassoon Clare Glenister returned to our course at the City Lit last night. Her painstakingly prepared theme was the bassoon as the comic of the orchestra, with Shakespeare at the core. Live, she played us Alan Ridout's Caliban and Ariel as well as Falstaff's sack-soaked solo in Elgar's marvellous symphonic poem. She'd spent all Saturday recording herself three times over in Granville Bantock's The Three Witches.

Next time we expect a Glenister x 4 rendition of Prokofiev's Scherzo humoristique. On which theme, Clare also played us an American spoof of Peter and the Wolf adapted for four bassoons. Bird, cat, duck, Peter, wolf and huntsmen are all...bassooons. Grandfather, who winds up the narrative muttering about Darwinian natural selection, is...a sopranino recorder.

Clare is an interesting and interested person, who participated in drama classes at the City Lit - Shakespeare's Nurse is a cornerstone of her rep - and is currently doing a degree course in which she hopes to perfect her Norwegian (brought about by a desire to read Ibsen in the original). She stayed for our Martinu chat, and wants us to point out to the management that the four-work programmes are killers for the players, and that less (ie three works) might be more. Many of us agreed, having stumbled from Martinu One in almost uncomfortable fatigue. These programmes look marvellous on paper and make for absorbing listening on Radio 3, but perhaps they're a bit much for orchestra and attentive audience alike.

And now it's time to put Martinu to bed for a few months (how long the interval befor Jiri returns for symphonies 3-6). In the meantime, I must turn my attention to Janacek's Jenufa for a Glyndebourne study day on Sunday (do come if there are places left - Robin Ticciati's also featuring, and singers will be performing bits of the opera with piano accompanument), and to Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle for an ENO programme note. All good but emotionally demanding stuff. And my previously announced intention to go for the happy and gentle was demolished by reading Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, one of the most devastating and upsetting novellas ever written.

It's essential reading that may have you viewing marital relations quite differently in the first fifty pages. Then, thanks to the device of the unreliable narrator, it becomes much more ambiguous and open-ended, as always with Tolstoy. And to think that all this hit the world before Freud and Ingmar Bergman.


Hilary Harland(Mrs) said...

from Mrs Hilary Harland
I was interested to read of Irene Noel-Baker(Mrs.Michael Chance) in earlier blogs, scion of that distinguished family of academics, politicians etc. I will always be grateful to her for advising me that she had had all her children at home instead of hospital, and what wonderful experiences these had been. This inspied me to have my own children(five,including twins) in our big comfy house, and what a fulfilling, enriching, uninduced set of experiences they were, and completely without mishap, although my youngest, Anne, arrived so quickly that my husband delivered her before the midwife arrived.
Thankyou Irene.
(Mrs)Hilary Harland

David said...

Strange are the labyrinthine ways of blogs and where they may lead for some. I, of course, only knew Irene as a fair classics student, long before her many offspring appeared (smoothly at home, it would seem) on the scene.

I rather doubt, though, if she'll see your comment here unless she's vanity-googling. But who knows? I've written this before, but the Great Love of a lady whose photo once appeared here got back in touch with her and moved to be closer, so wonders can happen.

Geo. said...

Sorry that your comments with Petroc Trelawney got cut off in the Radio 3 internet hearing. Any particular comments that we missed?

Fine performances too all around, although I confess that it's probably not healthy to hear too many of the Martinu symphonies in too close succession. The piano-based luminosity that characterizes his sound world in his symphonies can get a tad repetitive in style, IMHO. But then one can say the same thing about the style of Bruckner's symphonies. I did listen to the 7 Martinu string quartets a while back, the Naxos issues, and a certain same general style did creep in after a while. Still, though, kudos to the BBC SO and Jiri B. for doing their cycle.

David said...

Thanks, Geo. No, what actually happened was that the iPlayer programmes were spread across two chunks. Where the first stopped in the middle of the concert's interval, the second picked up immediately. I'm assuming, then, that you only got the first half and didn't move on to Mahler and Till E? You would have missed our tussle over the date of Till, which is a long story. But the music, needless to say, is much more eseential and interesting...

Yes, there are gains and drawbacks in hearing all those symphonies close to each other. Because they were all composed within a short space of time, in BM's high and deep maturity, they tend to re-examine the same territory from different angles.

I'm inclined to think that the gains far outweigh the drawbacks, though. The Second is so completely different from the First - smaller scale, lighter on the surface but not when you look closer. Three is then horribly tough.

But of course we're not getting them all close together. Much as I lament the gap of several months, it will give us a chance to come to 3-6 afresh.

And while the piano is used in the first five symphonies, it only stands apart from the harp in No. 4. BBCSO pianist Liz Burley's partner Martin said, oh, by the time we get to Six, she'll be a fully-fledged soloist! And I had to disabuse him by telling him there ISN'T a piano in Six.

But I really need to get to know the string quartets better.

John Babb said...

Good to see (and hear) your support for the Martinu symphonies (and your Record Review of the 4th symphony showed thorough knowledge and understanding of the work, unlike Anthony Burton's review of cds of the 6th symphony when that was broadcast).
Whilst the 2nd symphony is enjoyable, in my view its quality falls some way short of the later symphonies. The last two movements don't provide enough contrast or development, in terms of the work as a whole. In comparison, the final movement of the 3rd symphony shows much greater structural complexity and the way Martinu develops the material provides a wonderfully moving resolution for the symphony.

Belohlaveks' interpretations ( as heard on iPlayer )seem remarkable and totally convincing. Why do we not hear these works more often in the concert hall?

David said...

I can't agree, John, about the quality of the Second. If you think of it as a mini-Eroica - two movements serious, two light - then it achieves something quite different from the other five. I hold to my heretical view that the last D major chord is the brightest in any symphony, and that whole finally makes me feel very, very jolly.

You don't have to be Big or Tragic to make your mark - as Martinu himself pointed out in denouncing the false pathos and rhetoric of many symphonies written around that time. I'd single out Copland Three as a classic example of striving too hard for the grandiose.

Geo. said...

I did actually get to hear the Mahler and R. Strauss in the 2nd half, and your resumed conversation with Petroc Trelawney just before the second half's music began. If memory serves, you were about to say something about Martinu and then the first half of the iPlayer cut off. Something definitely felt left out between the two segments.

It looked as though the concert with Martinu 2 and friends didn't get much reviewed in the London press. The Guardian review was the only one that I found.

David said...

If memory serves, Geo., I was saying something about my City Lit BBCSO course and the very word cut off in mid sentence got picked up at the beginning of Part 2. I only remember this because I was pointing a staff member who wanted to extract the text of that bit for CL publicity in that direction.