Carl Nielsen had an exceptional understanding of the nuances of woodwind instruments, and when playing the parts he wrote for flautists, the affection is almost palpable. Towards the end of his composing career, he thought of different orchestral instruments as having distinct personalities, and composed their interactions accordingly. While Nielsen may have once said that “the composer has had to follow the mild character of the instrument” (source: The Carl Nielsen Society), and while there were certainly periods in his Flute Concerto in which the flute floats tranquillo above the rabble, there are also moments of impatient spikiness, and the liquid, sinuous cadenzas – as played by LSO principal Gareth Davies – contained bursts of fire… [read more here]

Programme

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Suite)
Nielsen: Flute Concerto
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid)

Performers

London Symphony Orchestra, Xian Zhang (conductor), Gareth Davies (flute)

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No notes, no research – just some thoughts and observations.

Prom 9: Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček

What to say about this concert? None of the works are new or unrecorded, so description unnecessary; I don’t know any of the works well enough to make comparisons with other interpretations of them. So – the Sibelius Scènes historiques were pleasant, and while they did, as promised in the concert blurb “[reveal] the composer’s lighter side”, to be honest, I’m more interested in his darker (heavier?) side, and found the 7th Symphony more meaningful and musically engaging. In both, I found myself listening particularly to all the different timbres brought out by the scoring, as the focus shifted around the different sections of the orchestra. All of the sounds coming from the Hallé were simply so nice that I probably would have been quite happy listening to them play scale exercises. What I particularly appreciated about the flute section was the richness of sound in their low registers, and they way it projected such a distance without ever sounding the slightest bit forced. The whole orchestra, in fact, had a particularly close-up, intimate feel to it, which is some achievement when playing to a crowd of many thousands in a huge space.

Enjoyed Bartók’s 3rd piano concerto, performed with great lyricism and harmonic clarity by András Schiff; there seemed particularly close rapport between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the fast alternating sections in the last movement. Janáček’s Sinfonietta is simply a super piece, and was played brilliantly, with all the fizzing energy required, but pinpoint-accurate under Mark Elder’s light fingertip control of the invisible mixing desk. It’s the only one of the pieces that I’ve actually played (piccolo part), and I had an idiot grin on my face for quite a lot of it, especially the 3rd movement. Incidentally: Oo, trombones! Trombones are great!

On a side note, I’m used to having to put up with noise made by other members of the public coughing, eating, fiddling with their false teeth and talking (including, in this case, some imbecilic American man behind me asking what Schiff was playing for his encore WHILE he was playing it), but this is the first time I’ve been distracted by the noise of a ticking watch. Yes, the elderly woman sitting next to me was wearing a watch with an absurdly loud tick, that was clearly audible in the quieter sections of the music. Especially when she raised her hand to ear level, while looking through her binoculars. I noticed it during the first piece and in the first break, politely asked her if she would mind putting it in her handbag. She seemed astonished that I could hear it, and put it to her ear to see if she could (no), and then if her companion could (no), but was still happy to comply. This was fortunate, as having the equivalent of a metronome set permanently to 60 BPM going throughout would not have been conducive to an enjoyable performance.

Prom 33: Sibelius, Grieg, Nielsen

Sibelius and Nielsen are two composers who seem to divide orchestral musicians, or at least, the ones I know. I love them both, Sibelius for his timbres and tone colours, and Nielsen because he writes for woodwind with more love and understanding than almost anyone. The two symphonies tonight (Sibelius 6, Nielsen 4) were not ones I know best, but both showed well the talents of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The Sibelius was particularly effective in its fine graduations of volume and texture. The Nielsen, on the other hand, required very sudden changes; the way the orchestra handled these gave me a mental image of being in a room with several doors opening and shutting in turn and then in combination, the other side of each having a completely different scene going on. Stand-out personnel were the battling timpanists (obviously), and the principal bassoon, who had an unusually soft-edged, slightly diffuse sound with languid vibrato, which was intriguing and enjoyable.

The other piece on the programme – the Grieg Am piano concerto, played by Alice Sara Ott – was one I know very well. At least, I’ve played in it enough times that I actually felt a kinaesthetic memory twitching in my fingertips in response to the 1st flute part – not all the way through, obviously, but at a few key moments, such as the lovely solo in the 3rd movement, which is one of my favourites. Cheese? Why yes it is, but it goes sailing above everything, the finest melted cheese topping (yeah, it’s not the best metaphor) with a last leap up to the top A and goosebumps all round. I found some of the tempi a little on the slow side (and got the impression that Ott did too, and was trying to push them on a bit, though couldn’t say for certain from such a distance) and the phrases joined into very long lines which could have done with a bit more definition, but that’s personal taste. I don’t seem to be very good at telling one pianist from another, because although I haven’t a word to say against Ott’s performance of the concerto, it sounded much the same (i.e. just as good) to my ears than every other time I’ve heard it. That is, apart from that time I did it in a church that hadn’t bothered to get their piano tuned properly, and one of the lower As was massively flat; A is kind of an important note in a concerto IN A MINOR, and the poor pianist kept trying to avoid it by transposing bits of the left hand either up or down the octave. Fortunately Ott did not have to do that. Neither did she make the mistake, as happened in the last performance of it that I played in, of wearing a brand new salmon-pink gown which turned out to be one of those fabrics that goes much darker when it gets wet, which in a sweltering hall resulted in massive sweat patches under each arm, mid-bosom, and, when she stood up to bow, arse too. Not that I suppose she would have cared, as long as all the music went well, and it did.

Audience noise rep0rt: One mobile phone, but an ‘old-fashioned telephone’ jingly sound which happened to be of the correct pitch to blend with the harmony of the music at that point. So, less annoying than a triangle…

Prom 66: Thierry Escaich (organ) plays Bach, Escaich, Reger, Franck, & Liszt

I like going to organ recitals once in a while. Don’t mind who’s playing what, just like having my bones rattled by the massive pipes. Preferably while lying flat on my back in the middle of the RAH Arena.

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

I was very interested to hear this opera, as I have for a long time been a fan of Nielsen’s orchestral music (which includes my all-time favourite flute concerto). I mentioned that I was going to it in an opera discussion forum, to which the two responses from people who had seen it were ” I can promise you that you will enjoy it… lovely dance routines, enjoyable music” and “It’s crap and I hope I never have to suffer through it again”. It also appears to be quite an obscure work (at least, outside of Denmark) – so, deservedly forgotten, or an overlooked gem?

As my recent operatic diet has been predominantly Wagner, with a little Don Carlos and Werther for light relief, it was quite a shock to the system to see something so unashamedly frivolous, upbeat, and generally fluffy. However, that’s not to say that the change wasn’t a good thing, and probably a little overdue. In a very brief summary, the plot revolves around party-loving young Danish chap Leander (Michael Schade), his even more hedonistic manservant Henrik (Kyle Ketelsen), Leander’s strict and dour father Jeronimus (Brindley Sherratt) and miserable and frustrated mother Magdelone (Kari Hamnoy). Jeronimus has set up an arranged marriage for Leander and is distinctly unimpressed by Leander’s professions of love for some trollop he met while out on the lash at some dodgy club – sorry, the Maskarade. Suffice it to say that in the grand comic opera tradition, all the characters end up – in masks, naturally – at the Maskarade, where much drinking, dancing and debauchery ensues. Jeronimus gets pissed and enjoys himself thoroughly, which rather weakens his case when it comes to patriarchal laying-down of the law. The ending is happy, and nobody dies.

I don’t remember coming across any of the singers before, but thought they generally did a good job of it. Brindley Sherratt created an excellent characterisation of Jeronimus, transforming from a stern and no-nonsense pillar of the community to, well, a lecherous drunk twat. I found Michael Schade’s Leander a little stuffy and unconvincing, though, both as party-boy and ardent lover. Not so Kyle Ketelsen, who was clearly enjoying himself immensely in the role of Henrik (a character owing more than a little to Figaro and perhaps Leporello), swaggering around the set and making the most of his many comedy moments. I personally like Ketelsen’s voice very much; a warm, rich bass-baritone with strength in the lower register and clarity of tone in the upper (well, perhaps apart from the soprano-mocking falsetto bit). Both Sherratt, as mentioned before, and Emma Bell (as Leonora, Leander’s beloved) were also in fine voice. On the other hand, I have to say that I found Martin Winkler’s voice (in a variety of small roles) to be really quite unpleasant, but that’s of course my personal taste.

Much of Nielsen’s music manages at once to be highly melodic yet not really have any tunes one leaves the theatre humming, and Maskarade is of this ilk. There was plenty of the slippy-slidy modality between the major and minor that is a trademark of Nielsen’s compositional style, and some delicate woodwind squiggles as decoration. One thing which I like about his writing is the way the harmony tends to veer off into unexpected modulations which tend to be modal rather than chromatic, which can feel quite subversive; however, I am also aware that many listeners find this same tendency actively annoying. Having listed the positive points, in my opinion this was very far from Nielsen at his best. It lacked depth (I suppose understandably, given the subject material) and had little of interest rhythmically. There were a few lovely woodwind moments, including a great flute solo, which were reminiscent of his chamber music and the calmer bits of the concertos, but they were too few and far between. There was a game effort by the company to make the dances of the third act more interesting, but their amusing costumes didn’t quite do the trick, and some trimming wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Overall, I am definitely glad I went to see this performance, but I would be careful who I recommended it to. To a fan of light comic opera, it should be an enjoyable evening, although it’s certainly not Mozart. Those who have a knowledge and admiration for Nielsen’s symphonies will probably be disappointed by the quality of the music. I found the set very visually pleasing and quite witty; the costumes less so.