Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bantock, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Strauss: orchestral works

Royal Albert Hall
30 August 2013

Sibelius' Pohjola's Daughter. 
A classic performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Serge Koussevitzky. From here.

A fascinating survey of late-Romantic attempts to organise orchestral works dramatically only let down by an innocuous concerto.

Three roughly contemporaneous tone poems comprised the significant portion of this Proms concert, though as tradition demands a concerto when a programme is not dominated by one big work, Prokofiev’s third piano concerto was drafted into use.

Dating a decade or so later than the tone poems, it made an interesting historical contrast, being neo-classical rather than romantic, the idiom of the other works. What this amounts to is that the concerto has a different sense of momentum from the other works. Although Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is in many sections, these are carefully linked to give a sense of progression, whereas even within the concerto’s three distinct movements Prokofiev produces jarring stop-start effects.

In this performance, the piano was simply one instrument in the orchestra; I don’t know whether this was the intention, whether it suggested a lack of power on the part of soloist Anika Vavic or poor balancing in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. It muted the impact of what – on recordings at least – can be a dazzling pianistic display.

Tone poem is an unhelpful term for what is basically an orchestral piece without a prescribed method of musical organisation. The three pieces on offer seemed to cover the range of possibilities.

I found Bantock’s Witch of Atlas to be an insipid piece of perfumed exoticism, a lovely tune lovingly orchestrated but stretched out far too long. Over-refined, the occasional suggestion of menace on the percussion seemed tame, and did nothing to increase the low level of dramatic tension. Perhaps Debussy or Rimsky Korsakov are evoked, but both of those composers knew how to incorporate drama within atmosphere.

Bantock’s friend Sibelius certainly knew how to convey drama. The climax of Pohjola’s Daughter emerges effortlessly from the first notes. Typically Sibelian, I can’t imagine anyone else managing to maintain tension as easily. A greater contrast with Bantock’s wholly atmospheric piece is unimaginable.

Strauss’ Zarathustra might have been written for this venue. The climax of the famous introduction, incorporating the Hall’s mighty organ, rattled my bones. If the composer was inadequate to the challenge of Nietzsche’s poetic attempt to transform our lives, but so too was Nietzsche himself. It is a cruel irony that Strauss’ score may reflect the philosopher’s actual achievement, a ‘gorgeous failure’ and so on.

There is a lot to enjoy, though, and something of the author's struggle to be a ‘yes sayer’ rather than a ‘no sayer’ does come through, building up to the joyous finale, itself then partly undermined by the threatening coda. It’s not a work to change my life, but it deserves to be heard in full, and not just the great sunrise.

Late Romantic tone poems completely suit conductor Vladimir Jurowski’s approach. I wonder if the low impact of the Prokofiev confirms that outside of his fach, Jurowski is less competent?

Thursday, 15 August 2013


Tristan Bates Theatre
13 August 2013

From the artist's website, here.

A powerful piece of lyric theatre, in which impressions are more significant than reflection on the drama.

This is Petar Miloshevki's second monodrama, following the acclaimed HOPE of a few years ago. If you liked the earlier piece, you'll love this.

He adopts a similar modernist approach to the text, comprising of fragments from 7 authors, including whole poems from some. We then witness Miloshevski creating what appears to be a single character, of ambiguous gender, enacting these texts in a number of scenes, or miming during musical interludes.

The flyer for the Camden Fringe Festival suggests the result is a symphony: but a closer musical metaphor would be a theme and variations. For the result is not dramatic, as is the aim in the central symphonic tradition, and indeed in the central theatrical tradition, of course.

Perhaps this is an attempt at lyrical theatre, rather than dramatic. A personality (or several) is evoked, a mysterious overall impression given, rather than much sense of forward momentum. While the ordering of the scenes isn't random, the audience's sense of progress is extremely limited.

Likewise any sense the audience might have of meaning, any more than a dream might have meaning. This surrealistic extremity is probably the major difference between this work and those of say, Samuel Beckett, where the dream is a demeanour, and doesn't go all the way down.

This is a thoroughgoing piece of surrealism, and the effect is something closer to theatre without drama. The greatest instance of that is the circus, and sometimes Miloshevski appears to celebrate virtuosity for its own sake, but for the most part the circus, with its implications of pure theatrical joy, is not an appropriate comparison.

However, the value of a dramatic artwork is that it demands a certain type of reflection afterwards, with the quality of that reflection mapping the quality of the art. Lyric art doesn't work in the same way: all we can comment on is the effect at the time. This makes lyric theatre especially transient.

The impression I had at the time was one of violent, mostly captivating, expression. And Miloshevski is an expressionistic actor, full of grimaces and extreme reaction, even extreme slowness at times.

Thankfully he is charismatic, and able to maintain interest over an hour, but the piece could benefit from longer quieter stretches; the intensity sometimes becomes monotonous. There is also a jarring intrusion by Carl Sandburg's poem 'They all want to play Hamlet', which came across as an actorly in-joke, and like all such jokes is unfunny for everyone else.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Mahler: Second symphony

Royal Albert Hall, 9August 2013
BBC Radio 3, 12 August 2013

Glenn Gould(!) conducting the Urlicht movement with the amazing Maureen Forrester singing. 

A sometimes staggeringly beautiful account of this challenging work.

Despite queuing for ages, I just missed promming at this obviously highly popular concert. So I listened to the BBC Radio 3 relay instead.

In the end, this made better sense, as I could listen to Mahler’s obvious inspiration, Beethoven’s ninth symphony, beforehand.

In dramatising the symphony form, indeed making drama the purpose of a symphony, Beethoven perhaps unintentionally bequeathed a ‘finale problem’ to his successors.

Superficially, Mahler adopts a variation of the older composer’s own solution. But here the choral finale jars much less with what has gone before. The deeper connection between the works is that they are effectively religious works, attempting to find something to affirm amidst life’s difficulties.

I find Mahler less successful in conveying the problems to be affirmed, because there is no equivalent to the eloquent slow movement in the Beethoven – instead we hear life’s empty parade, or else a nervous kind of spiritual anxiety.

Which is not to denigrate the work’s genuine power. It is a vast musical equivalent to the contemporaneous Rilke poem, where an Archaic Torso of Apollo tells the poet he must change his life. If I’m unclear how I must do this, I am no less unclear after Beethoven’s ninth, though in both cases the music convinces me it is possible.

The radio engineers capture quite a lot more detail than is possible standing in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, but on radio at least this was a glorious performance.

Perhaps Mariss Jansons is a little too Karajan-like as a conductor, but the sounds he generates from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are simply magical. It’s not possible to mention all of the great moments here, but in particular the way the voices arose from the orchestra, and the solo voices from the choir, was astonishing.

This approach to the symphony slightly reduces its momentum, for example in introducing the lovely second theme of the first movement. The greatest recordings of this work project a greater sense of urgency, more appropriate to the composer’s intention of a life-changing event.

If in the end this seemed more a celebration of life than an injunction to improve mine, what’s wrong with that?

It was hard to imagine the performers doing any better.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony etc

Royal Albert Hall
11 August 2013

Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region. 
Also part of this concert, but not reviewed here, for lack of space.

Undermining dramatic sense in order to display virtuosity.

Worthy as the first half hour of the programme was, I imagine most of the audience at this (free) concert came for the post-interval performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Hopefully this wasn’t anyone’s first experience of the work, though perhaps it was for the musicians, all teenagers. In which case I hope they get better opportunities later in their careers.

The popularity of this symphony, it’s totemic quality, at least in the finale, makes it hard to criticise. So it’s good to see in the programme guide a negative quote from Spohr in the 1860s, complaining that the finale’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy is cheap and tasteless.

As the booklet doesn’t challenge this, I presume we are to believe that poor old Spohr is himself a victim of changing taste, and we now better appreciate Beethoven’s late genius, or something.

But I’d suggest it is clear that the finale is intentionally tasteless, or at least parts of it are, and that lusty full-throated choral singing is a straightforward way to embody joy. Why should such crude joy be the climax to a symphony?

Especially as the first three movements produce an atmosphere of almost unbearable seriousness, not remotely dispelled by the bouncing scherzo. That the tempestuous introduction to the fourth movement is not overcome by snatches of each of these movements but rather by the banal joy march, is one of those uncanny (tasteless, profound) moments that can characterise great artworks.

The basic theme is fully developed, so that the abrupt ending can seem the only appropriate outcome after such extremes of ecstasy. On reflection, I don’t know if the ode to Joy genuinely provides a secular (or pantheistic, perhaps) answer to life’s hardships as depicted earlier, but while in the concert hall there is no doubt.

Any adequate performance, including this one, will leave the audience feeling elated. But it is harder to give the full weight to the first three movements, and conductor Vasily Petrenko seemed to believe that the sooner they were over, the better to raise applause and roof in the finale.

The first three movements were so hard-driven that the effect was almost mechanical rather than musical. Charmless, inarticulate and in the case of the second movement, taken so quickly as almost to be a virtuosic blur.

The balances were a little odd too, with the woodwind and percussion sounding prominent, along with the lower strings, while the brass seemed too distant and the overall string sound distinctly cool. This needn’t be a problem, though I felt spoiled by the opulent sound of the East-West Divan orchestra last year.

These flaws came close to ruining the sublime slow movement, which must have necessitated the composer’s audacious approach to the ‘finale problem’. At least, in good performances it becomes clear that something special was needed to respond to it. Here, I felt a normal-sized orchestral fast movement might have sufficed.

Performers were generally good; they are not to blame for following misguided instructions.

The earlier makeweights were given good performances, so far as I could tell. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new homage to Beethoven, Frieze, was enjoyable without being memorable; perhaps he should have thrown in a catchy, banal tune.