Friday, 6 September 2013

Verdi, Tchaikovsky: concert

Royal Albert Hall
5 September 2013

Joseph Calleja singing Verdi's imperishable La donna è mobile, this time in context. 
From here.

A great composer filleted, but the concert redeemed through championing an interesting Tchaikovsky work.

The Verdi bicentenary has hardly been noticed at the BBC Proms: it has received less attention than the anniversaries of Wagner and Britten, and less attention than Tchaikovsky, whose complete symphony cycle was finished in the second half of this concert, as if to add to the insult. Verdi maybe rates a little higher than Granville Bantock, but I’m not even sure of that.

A selection of orchestral excerpts and five tenor arias is a highly misleading way to represent this great musical dramatist, even if the arias, from his early and middle period, give the impression they can stand alone. But this is utterly untrue of La Traviata’s wonderful prelude, and as it died away I felt cheated that the ball scene didn’t immediately follow.

The overture to La Forza del Destino is more of a showpiece, but it was again jarring to hear Aida’s Triumphal March out of context, even if Verdi’s special trumpets are always worth hearing.

With one exception, the arias were from lesser-known Verdi operas, and oddly covered the same sentiment, a hero remembering past love. None showed the composer at his best, apart from the exception, La donna è mobile from Rigoletto. Tenor Joseph Calleja must be one of the finer Verdi tenors today, with an ardent, appealing tone that nonetheless pings as needed.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is also poorly known, despite being composed between his mature fourth and fifth symphonies. It ought to be better known, if this performance by Xian Zhang and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi is any indication.

As the composer recognised, the first movement is the strongest, a powerful depiction of crushing melancholy or depression, which eventually overcomes any pleasant memories. The remaining movements are less inspired, culminating in a clattering finale that is supposed to represent a demonic orgy but is completely sexless, and too reserved in this performance to truly sound demonic.

If that doesn’t sound like the strongest recommendation, there is still much to enjoy, in Tchaikovsky’s tuneful, colourful manner. In this performance, it seemed longer than its inspiration warrants, and it isn’t a masterpiece on the level of his sixth, but the handling of the obsessive idée fixe seems to me better than in most of Berlioz and perhaps this is the best representation of that concept in music.

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