Monday, January 31, 2011

Who got rhythm?

Musical Opinion
Proms Reviews by Martin Anderson
December 2010

Two Proms in close proximity were so different in delivery as if offering deliberate contrast. On 25 July Vassily Sinaisky was parachuted in to replace the late Sir Charles Mackerras at the head of the BBC Philharmonic in the kind of mixed-bag programme that recalled the monsters they used to serve up a century back: the Schumann Overture, Scherzo and Finale and Piano Concerto in the first half and a second of lollipops – Dvořák’s E minor Slavonic Dance, Op. 72, No. 2, the Fledermaus Overture, Thunder and Lightning polka, the Emperor and Blue Danube waltzes of Johann Strauss II and his dad’s Radetsky March.
Schumann’s four symphonies don’t get much of a look-in in concert programmes these days, so what chance does the Overture, Scherzo and Finale have? These days it might be called a Sinfonietta, and that was the route Sinaisky took: Schumann lite. The strings took some time to settle down in the first movement, lacking the rhythmic bite would have brought out the contrasts; the Scherzo was pretty toothless, too, lolloping along like a schoolboy out of class, so that here it was the lyrical episodes that lost their contrast. Detail creates the impression of speed, but it went for a burton throughout the piece – though in fairness one doesn’t know how much time Sinaisky had with the orchestra (where once he was principal conductor) before the concert. He did bring considerable delicacy to the slow movement of the Piano Concerto, accompanying Christian Zacharias’ sugary account of the solo part, but the big ideas went for nothing. Sinaisky’s showmanship came into its own in the Viennese selection, where teasing ritardandi are part of the fun – and it delivered the final gesture of shaking the leader’s hand during the Radetsky March and leaving them to it.
Two days later Paavo Järvi brought the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie from Bremen for an all-Beethoven programme: the First and Fifth Symphonies and the Violin Concerto, with Hilary Hahn – and these smaller-scale forces created far more impression of weight than had the full force of the BBC Philharmonic. Split fiddles offered a promissory note before a note was sounded – but from the first bars it was obvious that we were in for a white-knuckle ride. Järvi’s tempi would have been foolhardy without the whipcrack precision-response of his orchestra, and together they turned the voltage way up – although even at this lick Järvi and his musicians managed to find the teasing humour of the finale especially. The tempo of the opening timpani line in the Violin Concerto announced another fleet performance, although here, too, Järvi found space: there was an appealing chamber quality to the orchestral playing. Hahn was less impressive, though: her saccharine, pinched vibrato gave a mousy quality to the tone, forcing it constantly sharp.
Järvi had had the score of the First Symphony open in front of him, though he hardly looked at it; for the Fifth there was no score at all, as if it might slow him up – and he plunged straight into the work without waiting for the applause to subside. The fiery and determined first movement set the standard for what was to follow; as electrifying an account as I’ve heard in a concert hall for years. Though the finale was again unguardedly fast, its first grand statement brought up the hairs on the arms: despite the tempo, there was no loss of weight. In the encore, Sibelius’s Valse triste, again taken furiously swiftly, Järvi found an expressionist terror – the Valse triste forms part of the incidental music for Arvid Järnefeld’s play Kuolema (‘Death’), when a mother dances with death himself, and it never felt closer to the edge than here.
Järvi has been chief conductor of the Bremen Kammerphilharmonie since 2004, this concert further confirming what their Beethoven cycle on RCA Red Seal had long since proved – that this is one of the most fruitful partnerships on the orchestral scene today. The timpanist of the BBC Philharmonic had played with natural skins – well done, that man: these things matter. But the Bremen timpanist managed to make a hell of a clatter, energising the orchestra from behind as Järvi did from the front. The astonishing ability of the orchestra as a whole to deliver razor-sharp articulation without sacrificing musicality deserves loud huzzas, but it wouldn’t be fair to pass on without saluting the virtuosity of the three double-basses especially: I’ve never heard playing of such breath-taking virtuosity. I look forward to their Schumann symphonic cycle, now underway for RCA, with much enthusiasm.
A month after Järvi’s visit, on 29 August John Eliot Gardiner brought the Czech Philharmonic to the Albert Hall in a largely Czech programme, which opened with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture: as Sinaisky in Schumann, Gardiner found insufficient contrast when that big lyrical tune opened out, though the still, small island at the centre was well realised, the woodwind and leader’s solos plainly relished. In Martinů’s sixth and final symphony, the Fantaisies symphoniques, Gardiner played closed attention to the score, still managing to drive on the first movement as a ferocious orchestral toccata. And in the second, another toccata, he brought out the desperate longing of the lyrical string tune – plenty of contrast here. Oboe bells in the air recreated the sounds of folk pipes; and the position of the violas, to the front of the orchestra, helped their melody tell. The third movement, too, develops toccata tendencies until a great crash silences everything, whereupon a dirge emerges and the closing bars bring chant-like consolation.
You don’t expect to hear something new in the Grieg Piano Concerto these days, but Lars Vogt’s delicate phrasing in the opening told you to pay attention: this was not going to be your standard barn-stormer. And throughout the piece Vogt brought a gentleness to the piano part – answered by sensitive playing from the strings in particular – that revealed new layers of poetry.
Järvi’s tempi had been predictably fast; Gardiner’s weren’t predictably anything. His account of Janáček’s Ballad of Blaník could have been rather harder driven, and the introduction to Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony was then taken so slowly that the allegro came as real release and he pushed the rest of the movement – and then took the second at a very leisurely pace. The outstanding aspect of the performance as a whole was the clarity of the orchestral textures. I was surprised, though, to see how often Gardiner consulted the score of the Eighth in such a well-known piece of music. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

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