My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 11: Berlioz (The Trojans)

Last month I wrote about the dress rehearsal for this in its staged form at Covent Garden. At the time, I was very taken with the visual aspect of the performance, so was glad of another chance to hear the music, now comfortably bedded-in with all concerned, without all the running around, and with the orchestra up on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Of course, there was no huge flaming horse, but given the ambient temperature of the Albert Hall in summer (a few degrees below the Mouth of Hell), this was probably for the best.

I particularly enjoyed Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra, more than I did at the dress – now devoid of floor-rolling and nose-scraping, but with voice just as full of character and feeling, if not more so. I also appreciated Ji-Min Park’s Iopas more this time. The acoustic, of course, was not ideal – at least, in certain parts of the hall, and the smallest voices (only in the smallest of roles) were sometimes drowned; having said that, I wouldn’t have had the orchestra any quieter, as they were making a splendid noise. The extra brass were up in the gallery, from where the antiphony worked particularly well (and the bonus that they could blast the unsuspecting audience members sitting directly below and frighten the life out of them). It was good to be able to pay proper attention to the ROH woodwind section, whom I greatly admire. 1st flute Margaret Campbell was on particularly lovely form – although I’m not (yet?) a great fan of Berlioz’s flute writing – but it’s always a little bit of a disappointment not to see Philip Rowson in the piccolo chair (no insult intended to the chap who was). There were some very fine pieces for clarinet, seemingly excellently performed – I’m a bit out of love with the sound of clarinets at the moment and not being easily moved by them, so it’s difficult to judge, but given that, despite this, I still noticed it on several occasions, it must have been pretty good!

Regarding the work itself, I was more drawn to the music in Acts 1 and 2 – the ones set in Troy. In the Carthage acts, there were some very wonderful moments, but the longeurs seemed longer. At Covent Garden, even with the distraction of men running around in little leather pants, the ballet scenes dragged; here, without even that, the music – however brilliantly played – bored me silly. By halfway through Act 4 I was rolling my eyes, and if I had magic editing powers, I would have cut pretty much the entire act, apart from Narbal’s bit – or, if that made the opera a bit on the short side, have Brindley Sherratt sing the ancient Carthanginian version of the telephone directory for half an hour. That would have been  much better.

Still, damn fine opera. Glad to have discovered it, and might even get the DVD (which will have FF/skip capability…)

PROM 42: Prokofiev, Neuwirth, Bartók

As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work. Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory, which received its UK premiere at this concert, is a more traditional concert work in the sense of being a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement  titled “… im Meer versank …” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect. Although there are passing allusions to ‘songs’ from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness’… [read more here]

PROM 47: Cage Centenary Celebration

Perhaps it’s something to do with the Olympics? While there are avid lifelong fans of each one of the less-frequently-televised events featured, there have also been legions of people who usually barely register an interest in sport glued to Greco-Roman wrestling, the incomprehensible varieties of bicycle race, and hours of athletes repeatedly flinging different objects across a field. Likewise, although the many ardent fans of John Cage were obviously out in force for this centenary celebration concert for the legendary iconoclast, also present were a significant number of newcomers both to the ‘genre’ (if it can be called such) and to the Proms themselves. And the majority of them stayed the distance, too – a not inconsiderable 3 1/2 hours (5 if one took the Cage-inspired ‘Music Walk’ beforehand), at least an hour of which involved seemingly-abstract soundscapes created from unpitched ‘found’ instruments such as paper, wires, an electric fan, an vast range of cacti (Branches), and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s instrument cases (the Marclay piece Baggage). Of course, the sound made by rustling paper is not very loud (unless it is a nearby audience member’s programme, in which case it is obviously infuriatingly so), so amplification was a major feature of the concert… [read more here]

PROM 63: Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel

I bloody love Ligeti. It reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t. I’ve been having some horrid #fibrospoon* stuff going on recently, with muscle fibres randomly knotting themselves up into snarling masses of tension and pain, but when those microtonal clusters of gossamer sound settled on me, the tightness eased, and the knots began to unravel themselves. I would say that I should try it more often, but even the most high-definition of recordings doesn’t work in the same way as being hit by the actual sound waves from the actual instruments. I’ve been lucky enough to hear maybe 3 live performances of Atmosphères in the last few years, and so after a couple of minutes of letting it do its soothing work, I decided to open my eyes and actually look at the musicians for a change. It did amuse me a little to see such a famously disciplined string section as the Berlin Phil with their bows all flying chaotically in different directions (of course they were – they were all playing different parts), and the double bass section getting all excited in the piccolo lead-up to the Vertical Asymptote Bit (if you don’t know the bit I mean, listen to the piece, and you will). The Albert Hall was rammed full of thousands of people being as quiet as they possibly could so as not to miss a note; this was very pleasing – I didn’t have to poke or scold anyone! It also worked extremely well to segue straight into the Lohengrin Overture; with the most careful of gear changes, the textures were matched perfectly and the first tonal chord emerged in a sudden manifestation of reverse entropy.

I didn’t know Sibelius 4 at all. I should have done, as it was on the programme for an orchestra repertoire course I was on the other year, but there were, that afternoon, as frequently happens, more flutes around than required, and I generously volunteered to take the afternoon off (in favour of a hot bath to soak a set of arms and back not used to 8 hours a day of playing). Anyway, when I turned up for dinner, the other flutes rounded on me, suggesting I’d only pretended to be reluctantly stepping down because I secretly knew that it was an awful symphony and wanted to get out of playing it. This was Very Unfair, both to me, and, it turns out, to Sibelius. It is not an awful symphony at all; it is rather lovely – although on the dark, stark side, and possibly a disappointment to anyone expecting Big Tunes like in No.5. There was one bit I hated, to be fair – anyone guess what? – yes, some incredibly obtrusive walloping glockenspiel, that had me fantasising about taking a machine gun and blowing the bastard thing to smithereens. I mean the instrument, of course, not the player, who was presumably only doing what the score and maestro required of him. Fortunately, from a Law n Order point of view, I had no access to firearms or the percussion area. Or, for that matter, to Jonathan Kelly, whom I do not know personally and so would have probably alarmed by giving a massive hug, just for playing such beautiful oboe solos. (Yes, I really like oboes. This is not news to anyone. Or is it? I was out the other night with old friends who were somehow surprised to discover that I really like curry and tennis, so who knows…)

In the second half there was something of a change of pace with Debussy and Ravel. If Sir Rattle thinks Jeux is a worthwhile piece of music, I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it and assume it’s me that’s missing something, but – meh. Whatevers. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Daphnis & Chloe, on the other hand, was absolutely brilliant. The woodwind were nice and prominent, as it should be, and from my Upper Choir seat I could hear more of the detail in their parts than I’d dared hope. Admittedly I did have a brief thought of how I’d like to be at a sectional rehearsal for the piece, so I could hear all the lovely bubbly ripply stuff just once, minimalist-style, without the distraction of the soppy string tunes. I also felt a litle ashamed of myself for having, when the orchestra first came on, noting the 1st flute only as Not Emmanuel. It was in fact Andreas Blau, and he played the the extremely demanding Ravel really damn well, so much so that at the end, Sir Rattle ran through the orchestra and gave him a big hug before anyone else. (I’ve sometimes been hugged by appreciative conductors after concerts, but that tends to be down the pub after they’ve had a beer or two, not on the actual stage. Maybe if I get to play D&C one day, and don’t bugger it up…) The final section of the piece had all the fire, fury and kick you could desire, and was not in the least diminished in excitement by its technical perfection (as at least one sniffy critic said). The audience would have liked an encore, but honestly, what would you follow an ending like that with? Let’s leave the table comfortably full after an imaginative and varied 5-course meal, not stuffed to ickiness by an extra helping of pudding.

* Don’t look it up. I made this word up.

Advertisements

Image © Lou Denim/EMI Classics, borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms Chamber Music 6: Martinů, Dutilleux, Prokofiev

I don’t go to chamber music concerts very often, and even more rarely ones where I don’t have a friend or two among the performers. It’s not that I dislike chamber music, but without complex orchestral textures and polyphonies, I find it difficult to get lost in the music in the same way. However, then along come two unmissable recitals in the same month, today’s in some ways quite the opposite of the previous – Pahud in bright noon sunshine at the Cadogan as opposed to Kennedy dim-lit and pushing midnight at the Albert – but also not without its similarities.

I nearly didn’t go, for the perhaps odd reason that I know the repertoire too well. Many years ago, as undergrad music students, we all picked a ‘specialist’ performance period for our main instrument; mine was early-mid 20th century flute music, smack in the middle of which are situated the 1940s Martinů and Prokofiev Sonatas, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. In fact, the programme was pretty much exactly what 20-year-old me would have picked for a recital (with Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir as encore). Except that 20-year-old me was not running around giving recitals, but worried and depressed because of the burning pains of tendinitis creeping steadily up my arms when I practised – the same RSI which stopped me playing (much) for years, and because of which, 18 years later, I’m typing this on a computer with ergonomic keyboard and have a box full of the different bandages, splints and wrist supports I’ve needed at various times in order to play. This is not in any sense going to be a poor-wounded-me memoir, just a little personalisation regarding how tightly the emotions of the past can be tied to certain pieces of music, and make one wary around them. Anyway, I then thought, get over yourself and your stupid wrists, it’s the principal flute of the Berlin Phil, playing stuff you know you like. Duh.

Emmanuel Pahud is not the bad boy of the flute world. Fresh and scrubbed, in a neat rumple-free suit and unnecessary tie, he looked improbably bright-eyed and perky. This would normally be concerning – if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s prim, pretty and polite flute playing – but I’ve heard him on recordings and with the BPO, so knew to pay no more attention to the going-to-an-interview-at-a-bank outfit than I do to beloved Nigel K dressing in clothes randomly pulled from someone’s dirty laundry basket. While obviously in possession of a gorgeous smooth legato across the registers, and filigree delicacy when required, what I like about Pahud is that he gives it welly, and plays around with tone and articulation effects, including sometimes allowing the kind of rough edges that remind you that the sound comes from human lips and lungs (and would have prim, polite flautists, who go through their recordings editing out every trace of breath or buzz, throwing their limp hands in the air in horror). I can imagine why some don’t like his style in certain repertoire, but for this kind of thing, it’s perfect.

So, Martinů was first up, and – typical – within half a minute I’m remembering the evil, snide old bitch of a flute teacher I was sent to in my first year at uni, and her weirdly poor sense of rhythm when it came to really-not-that-challenging 7/8 time sigs. The Martinů was one of the last sonatas I studied with her (and, neatly, the Prokofiev was one of the first I tackled with the teacher I left her for, Simon Desorgher). Anyway, having got those memories out of the way early on, I was able to enjoy the rest of the piece. I could go into detailed bar-by-bar analysis if required, but why? Martinů and Dutilleux were very enjoyable. Mr P gave a little talk between them, which was particularly interesting in terms of Dutilleux’s tone colours and “joy of sound”, although his comment about choice of fluttertongue technique “depending whether you are more gifted with the throat or with your tongue” caused two ladies near me to change colour.

The Prokofiev is my favourite modern flute sonata. (I expect my friends would assume it was Poulenc, but actually that’s my favourite flute sonata out of the ones I feel confident enough about to play in public. (*Aside* For anyone who was at Debbie’s birthday party, I can assure you I play it with greater accuracy without the copious quantities of wine in me.) Anyway, Prokofiev. Brilliant piece, although – no offense to Eric Le Sage’s piano – I always thought it deserved full orchestral backing, and would make a cracking addition to the concerto repertoire. (And for once, rather than flutes borrowing from the violin repertoire, they’ve tried to nick one of ours – to the extent of begging the composer himself to rewrite it for violin). It needs to sing, but also to shriek, whisper and growl; it requires technical acrobatics and poise, emotional intensity and a sense of humour, wine-soaked languidness and too-much-caffeine jitters. All these were present (although probably not literally in the case of the booze), plus the most ferocious spit-and-fur-flying, take-no-prisoners physical assault on the 4th movement that I’ve ever heard, which was incredibly exciting to be in the same room as, and which I hope manages to come across to some extent on the broadcast.

This is what live music is all about.

Thinking about it, my pick of Merle Noir for encore is all wrong for following Prokofiev, and although I would love to hear him play it live sometime, the frothy but lovely Fauré Fantaisie (another from the Paris Conservatoire flute competition Greatest Hits Songbook) was much more suitable for re-establishing one’s composure (for performers and audience alike). I happened to be leaving the building at the same time as Mr P, and saw him stop for a few autographs and smiley photos with fans, before being bundled into a taxi to the airport for an evening concert in another country. Nice guy too, then. And another musician to add to the list of concert schedules I’ll now be keeping an eye on.