Monday, 21 April 2014

Time to End the Proms Embargo?

In three days time, the 2014 Proms programme will be announced, and the nation’s cultural commentators will all try to sound surprised. The identity of the headline performers is the biggest open secret in classical music, and you don’t have to be at the BBC to have heard the names going round for months. Most festivals and concert seasons announce their programmes up to a year in advance, but the BBC likes to pretend that nobody knows about the Proms until ten weeks before they begin.
The Proms rightly prides itself as the greatest classical music festival in the world, but it is plagued with silly traditions, and none are as silly as this – apart possibly from the Last Night. And like the Last Night, it is a distinctively British preoccupation that sits uneasily with the international profile of the festival itself. Musicians from British orchestras tend to maintain the spirit of the embargo, talking about Proms gigs in at least slightly coded terms. Players in foreign orchestras, though, don’t bother, and are usually happy to give you chapter and verse. Even the websites of many foreign orchestras make the information plain, telling you the dates and times of the London engagements in their summer tour, just leaving off the venue, presumably to satisfy contract conditions with the BBC.
The sheer impracticality of the embargo is what makes it such a farce. Publicity for yearlong composer anniversaries will carry detailed information about every event from January until December, apart from an ambiguously worded reference half way down the list to a “major London summer music festival”. No doubt the organisers of such anniversary celebrations are grateful for the exposure in the Proms, but the complications it causes to their publicity cycle can’t endear the system.
Then there is the curious sideshow of commentators feigning ignorance. Here is Petroc Trelawny, writing two days before the Proms launch in 2010 and claiming to know only two percent of the programme. That’s an unlikely scenario, and the embargo seems all the more fragile when it relies on such disingenuous pronouncements.
I’ll concede that I am in the industry, but I’m not in the know. There isn’t any other festival or season that fails quite as badly to keep its programming under wraps. Official season announcements by the Southbank Centre or the Barbican, say, are always news to me: a genuine surprise rather than a manufactured one.
Roger Wright, like every Proms controller before him, has charted a course between tradition and innovation, subtly reinventing the festival every year, but without seriously disrupting any of the traditions it clings to. Now he is moving on to Aldeburgh, leaving these challenges to his successor (who, funnily enough, has yet to be named). I doubt that however it is will be willing to tackle issues like the hegemony of season ticket holders in the arena, or the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall, but perhaps the programme embargo could be one issue for their to-do list. There is nothing wrong with keeping this information secret and then making it public with pomp and fanfare – but why not do it in November rather than April?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Concertgebouw Jansons Vogt Barbican 5 April 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Lars Vogt (piano), Mariss Jansons (conductor), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Barbican, London, 5.4.14

The Concertgebouw Orchestra ended their three concert residency at the Barbican with some luxurious Beethoven followed by some propulsive Bruckner. Mariss Jansons, as ever, gave distinctive readings, energetic and carefully shaped, with every detail of the scores put to the service of the bigger picture. That worked better in the Beethoven than the Bruckner, and although the concerto is very much the slighter work, it offered the greater enjoyment and interest this evening.
Lars Vogt is the ideal pianist for the Concertgebouw. Like the orchestra, his Classical and Romantic repertoire interpretations are all about natural, unaffected expression underpinned by a fluent and undemonstrative virtuosity. As the orchestra began the exposition, the players sounded strangely relaxed. There was a laid-back feeling about the sound production and phrasing. One consequence was poor ensemble, especially in the violins, but the compensation was an unhurried and satisfyingly warm orchestral tone. In fact, the Concertgebouw sound is more sophisticated and rich than first impressions suggest. There is a gritty, sinewy undertone to the string textures that complements the general roundness of tone, adding focus and bite when required.
Similarly, Vogt’s playing is characterised by a generally lyrical and mellow legato, but regularly punctuated by heavily accented notes or phrases. He has a muscular and definite touch; he offers plenty of nuance while always avoiding ambiguity. Combined with the rich, Romantic Concertgebouw sound, the result was old-fashioned Beethoven, unencumbered by even the vaguest notion of period performance practice: this is how the Concertgebouw has performed Beethoven since the 19th century, so why change now?
The Bruckner, by contrast, was very different even from the most recent performances the orchestra has given of his symphonies in the UK. Bernard Haitink is the most recent conductor to take up the Concertgebouw’s Bruckner traditions and perpetuate them without subjecting them to any radical reinterpretations. Mariss Jansons, though, is a different kind of conductor. His readings of the great Romantic symphonies, from Schumann to Shostakovich, have always been about focus and direction, lyrical yes, but with all the music’s expressive apparatus put to the service of structural and dramatic aims. That’s what he did with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony this evening, and most of it didn’t work at all.
There was little sense of mystery in the introduction, and when the main theme entered, it was fast, heavily accented and lacking in any sense of grandeur. Jansons read the symphony as if it were Brahms, subjugating its diverse musical discourse into a clearly rational, unambiguous form. So, when at the end of the first movement, the heavens open and a radiant chorale is played on the violins in their highest register, it didn’t tear through the earthly discourse as a divine intervention, but merely continued the progress towards the following climax. Tempos in the Scherzo were erratic, to say the least, very fast in the pizzicato at the start, then slowed right down for the bass entry, then suddenly brought back up to tempo when the violins re-entered. Why? I’ve no idea, but it completely destroyed the sense of unstoppable momentum that this passage requires. Even more surprisingly, Jansons pushed the tempos in the Adagio just as hard as he had in the first movement. He is clearly very interested in the ways that tiny melodic cells can link the longer phrases together. So, for example, he will bring out just a three or four note interjection from the woodwinds, and what ought to be a transitional figure or answering phrase suddenly becomes primary thematic material. Every interjection from the Wagner tuba was brought right to the front of the texture, which only went to highlight their suspect tuning. And the climaxes, when he got to each of them, were so exaggerated that the rich colours of the orchestra all but broke up.
All of which was a great shame, especially since under Van Beinum, Jochum, Haitink, even Harnoncourt, the Concertgebouw has shown itself to be one of the truly great Bruckner orchestras. Jansons is clearly a great conductor too, but his strengths lie elsewhere, and this evening the stars only really came into alignment for the first half.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Olivier Latry, Royal Festival Hall Organ, 27 February 2014

Floretz: Prélude from l’Enfant noir, Op. 17
Messiaen: L’ascension – 4 méditations symphoniques
Widor: Organ Symphony No. 5

Olivier Latry, organ
Royal Festival Hall, 27 February 2014

The Southbank Centre is showing off its newly refurbished Festival Hall organ in style with a series of concerts and recitals featuring some big names. Olivier Latry is perhaps the most celebrated organist among those participating in the festival. He is organist of Notre Dame, and an accomplished recitalist with a global following. He is particularly noted for his Messiaen, and the four movements from L’ascension were certainly the highlight of this programme. But he’s a versatile player, and although this was an all-French programme, it was a diverse one too, and showed off a good range of the renovated instrument’s capabilities.
The programme opened with an oddity, the Prelude from l’Enfant Noir by Jean-Louis Floretz, a Parisian organist who died in 2004. The prelude is part of an unfinished suite inspired by a novel by the French-African author Camara Laye. Apparently, Floretz studied ethnomusicology, but the ethnographic dimension of this seemed slightly suspect. A percussive, rhythmically complex accompaniment is presumably meant to represent African drumming. Over this we hear simple pentatonic melodies with more than a passing resemblance to various spirituals. Floretz studied with Messiaen, and like almost every French organ composer of his generation struggled to escape Messiaen’s overbearing influence, even here, where we are supposed to be transported far from Paris. It is a fun piece though, and a good concert opener. It also gave Latry a good opportunity to show off his nimble fingerwork, and the clarity he can draw, even at loud volumes, from appropriate register combinations.
Both the Messiaen and the Widor were performed from memory, quite a feat in itself, and an indication of Latry’s affinity with this music, which he had no trouble conveying, even on what must be an unfamiliar instrument to him. Everything came together in the Messiaen meditations, the precision of Latry’s touch, the appropriateness of his register combinations, and, most significantly of all, the sense of pace and precise timing with which he unfolded these works. In the first movement, long silences separate the individual phrases, and presumably these were included by Messiaen to accommodate the long decay time in a large church. Latry kept the gaps, which here were effectively silent in the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall, but paced the music well to accommodate them. Elsewhere, Messiaen’s textures are spiky and dissonant, but the clarity of Latry’s playing ensures equal clarity here. The last movement requires him to gradually build up the textures by gradually adding in registers, which he did with a canny ear for colour and timbral weight. A highly accomplished performance and one that left us wanting more from this composer.
Sadly, though, there was no more Messiaen on offer. In fact the programming of the second half was a matter of some contention. Latry came on to the stage before he played to explain that he had originally planned to perform Stravinsky’s four-hand piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring with his wife. But apparently the publisher had blocked the plan because they did not want this piano version played on the organ. Latry was clearly very annoyed about this and, rightly I think, described it as a very petty decision. He rubbed it in a bit by telling us that audiences in America, where the publisher in question has no jurisdiction, had enjoyed the Latrys’ version. He was valiant enough not to name the publisher, but I’m going to, it’s Boosey & Hawkes. So what are they up to? Perhaps they fear a deluge of unauthorised reorchestrations – for tuba quartet or whatever. Even so, the decision seemed heavy-handed in this case.
Instead we got Widor’s Fifth Symphony, and after his little tirade it was clear that Latry’s heart really wasn’t in it. The opening movement was scrappy, with Latry’s limbs not co-ordinating as they had previously. Much of the quiet music in the inner movements was uninspired, with pedestrian register choices and little rubato. The Toccata was good though, more nuanced than we usually hear, with Latry finding a spare finger or toe at many crucial points to make subtle but telling register changes. And despite this being a predominantly German organ, by tradition and design, Latry was able to produce some properly Gallic sounds for the Widor, mixing the lighter registers to create subtle and inviting colours and making full use of the swell pedals to shape phrases.
And to finish – an improvisation. Latry announced that the simple theme he was using was one that André Marchal had improvised on in 1954 at the inaugural concert of this instrument. It sounded to me like the theme to Inspector Gadget. The improvisation itself was a tour de force, episodic and with all the expected elements, a scherzo opening, a chorale prelude with the theme in the pedals, a Baroque fugato with four(ish) voices of counterpoint and a toccata ending. Quite a feat, and a proper workout for the organ too.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Gardiner Ibragimova LSO Barbican 23.3.14

Mendelssohn: Overture Ruy Blas
Schumann: Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 “Italian”
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Alina Ibragimova, violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican, London, 23.3.14

Everybody was working well outside their comfort zones this evening: John Eliot Gardiner led a modern instrument band, the LSO performed in ‘historically informed’ mode, and Alina Ibragimova tried her hand at the Schumann, hardly core repertoire for any violinist. The sheer professionalism on display ensured that the technical side of the performance was rarely compromised, but there was a noticeable lack of ease or flow from the orchestra, and the resulting tension only occasionally raised the excitement levels.
Gardiner and the LSO are not complete strangers: they have worked together before, so both sides must know by now what to expect. Given the difference in interpretive traditions between this orchestra and his own ensembles, Gardiner was uncompromising in his approach. A set of old-fashioned cavalry timps was the only concession to period instrumentation from the orchestra, but Gardiner reduced the orchestra by about a third, and had the strings stand (they sat for the concerto). Vibrato was kept to a minimum, though not completely prohibited, and the orchestral playing in every work was characterised by hard accents and carefully manicured phrases.
Ruy Blas opened with austere brass fanfares, setting the tone for the whole concert. Despite the small orchestra, Gardiner drew a large forceful sound from the players, deliberate and unambiguous. The overture was well shaped, and built up well to its conclusion. And whatever privations Gardiner subjected his players to, their intonation and balance were never under threat. A strident opener, but conspicuously lacking in Mendelssohnian humour or levity.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto is a controversial work and a rarity on the concert platform. There is some great music here, but the weaknesses are all too clear. The structure manages to be simultaneously conventional to a fault and incoherent. The orchestral writing is often turgid and needlessly opaque. And the solo part is close to impossible, not for its virtuoso acrobatics so much as its indifference to the mechanics of the instrument.
So it needs all the help it can get, and adding into the equation a modern orchestra attempting to emulate period performance practice does it no favours at all. Many of the orchestral textures, particularly in the first movement, are complex to the point of utter obscurity, and sullen and grey in their colouring. Modern configuration string instruments playing without vibrato only exacerbate the problem. That said, the LSO strings can always be relied on to bring clarity and elegance, and the slow second movement, the concerto’s main redeeming feature, certainly had many moments of simple, unadulterated beauty.
Alina Ibragimova is no stranger to period practice herself, but chose, possibly to Gardiner’s chagrin, to perform on a modern configuration violin with plenty of vibrato. Although this concerto isn’t going to be the ideal match for any player, many aspects of her style fit it well. Much of the music is set in the instrument’s lower register, where Ibragimova’s viola-like tone is rich and satisfying. Her projection is also valuable here, especially as she is able to maintain the rich elegance of her tone even at the loudest dynamics. And then there is her technical proficiency; the sheer difficultly of this concerto really sets it apart, but Ibragimova found a convincing and highly musical way through all of its vicissitudes.
The tensions between Gardiner’s approach and the LSO’s sound became even more apparent in the Italian Symphony that made up the second half. Were this Gardiner’s own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, his heavy accents, emphatically shaped phrases and fast tempos would all make sense. Gut strings and narrow bore winds give less tone, so a more agogic approach with more shaping of phrases is required. But the LSO, even with reduced forces, gives a big, sustained sound, on which many of these details feel like overkill.
In fact, the balance within the orchestra was very well managed, and it was clear that everyone was listening to each other. Although the violins (with seconds on the right) were reduced in number, the low strings remained well-staffed, and the six double basses gave a rich, warm basis to the textures.
Gardiner’s tempos were fast, but they usually are anyway for the outer movements of this symphony. The heavy accents and broad dynamic swells used to articulate the phrases made the opening movement seem all the faster. Some elegant playing from the woodwind soloists brought valuable lightness and elegance to the inner movements. The finale really was fast, by any standards, almost too fast for the LSO woodwind section – which is saying something. They managed to keep it together though, and Gardiner took his foot off the accelerator for the quieter interludes.
A journey of discovery then, particularly for the players. Gardiner is to be congratulated for sticking to his guns on matters of interpretation and for not giving the orchestra an easy time. The sheer versatility of the LSO is amply demonstrated by their ability to do what Gardiner asks, and without any serious compromise to their consistently high technical standards. But what about the audience? A collaboration like this ought to offer the best of both worlds, which it occasionally does, but much of the time it feels like neither one thing nor the other.