Divided loyalties, mixed feelings

Decisions, decisions… This week I had to decide between the Proms (using my season ticket) or the RPO Summer Serenade series at Cadogan Hall.  Having started the week on a terrific high with the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra prom (which ended with the kids doing a conga around the stage, wearing Venezuelan football shirts and twirling their instruments in the air while the audience rose to its feet and cheered), and a fine (but not roof-raising) account of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, I opted for some calm and civilised chamber music at Cadogan Hall.

Turned out to be a slightly low-key experience — everyone in the world (including all my friends, and even my colleagues who work at the Hall) were either on holiday (or on honeymoon, in one case) or at the Albert Hall or otherwise occupied, so the audiences were distinctly thin on the ground.

Tuesday was Mozart wind music — the C minor Serenade (what a fantastic piece) and the ’13 Wind’, which is lovely but does go on too long.  My initial feeling was that these were orchestral players not used to playing chamber music — they hadn’t realised how quietly they could, or should, play.  I didn’t recognise any of the players, which was unusual for me, apart from John Anderson on first oboe and David Chatterton on contrabassoon (not as authentic as a double bass would have been, but it was a great sound — up through the floorboards — and we contra players must stick together!). 

Wednesday meant missing Claudio Abbado’s Mahler 3 at the Proms — by all accounts a truly unforgettable experience, and Abbado is one of my heroes (which goes back to the ECYO’s first course in 1978 with Claudio conducting and me as librarian).  Ah well.  Instead I had a feast of chamber music with harp:  Ropartz, Roussel, Debussy (sonata for flute, viola and harp — one of my all-time favourite pieces) and Ravel (Introduction and Allegro).  The harpist was unknown to me (and to Google):  Suzy Willison-Kawalec — a real treasure, rock-solid technique, lovely sound and a delightful presence.  Flautist Andrew Nicholson disproved my gripe about orchestral players not playing quietly enough, with some magically delicate playing.  My only complaint, as throughout the week, was that I often couldn’t hear the top violin — probably to do with the hall’s acoustics rather than Clio Gould’s playing.  Douglas Mitchell’s clarinet was a bit under pitch in the Ravel — understandably, as he had come in ‘cold’ at the end of the concert.

One amusing footnote:  the Ropartz ‘Prelude, marine et chansons‘ — smashing little piece, by the way — was originally billed as ‘Piano Quintet:  soloist Viv McLean’ which caused me much head-scratching (while writing the programme notes) as I couldn’t track down this work at all.  Eventually an e-mail to Viv McLean himself elicited the explanation: ‘I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find any information about the Ropartz Piano Quintet- a few weeks after I had agreed to do it, the RPO got in touch to say that it doesn’t exist!’  Ho hum.

Thursday was string chamber music — Strauss’s Sextet from Capriccio (gorgeous), Brahms’s Sextet No. 1 in B flat (lovely, but oh dear, the first movement does go ON!), and the Mendelssohn Octet — played standing up (except for the cellos) — which was wonderful.  One cavil:  I can understand why the first cello decided to sit nearest the audience (orchestral custom), but it meant that Mendelssohn’s pass-the-parcel jokes round the circle didn’t quite work as the bottom two voices were in the wrong order.

Friday was Schubert — a more sociable occasion at last: I had company, and there were more people in the audience too, including some friends.  Tim Gill made heavy weather of the ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata (a pretty duff piece anyway, I concluded), and Sally Matthews was lovely in the ‘Shepherd on the Rock’, though we thought her voice was too big and ‘operatic’ for the surroundings and she was having to throttle it down uncomfortably. Then the Octet, which was an hour of unalloyed bliss (if you can keep awake, which I had no trouble doing this time).  I was particularly struck by the wind playing — clarinet Thomas Watmough, in a strangely hunched posture;  horn Martin Owen, very discreet and accurate;  bassoon Daniel Jemison, a young chap with a gorgeous tone and the ability to play impossibly quietly when required.

(Is it me, or are bassoonists — like policemen — getting younger?)

And so back to the Proms last night, for Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw, which I couldn’t possibly miss.  I wasn’t in the mood for Parsifal (perhaps because I had a migraine coming on, as it turned out) and neither was the orchestra, it seemed;  overheard in the interval — ‘Marvellous Parsifal‘ — ‘Oh, did you think so?  They didn’t play it very well’ — ‘Oh no, not well played, but marvellously conducted‘.  Hmm.  Anyway, Haitink’s Debussy (Nocturnes) was revelatory.  Never heard the three muted trumpets better played, and all sorts of lovely orchestral detail coming through.  And a word of praise for the women’s chorus Tenebrae in ‘Sirenes’  — spot-on tuning, very atmospheric.  Then Tristan Prelude and Liebestod, which was — well, more Wagner.  The Concertgebouw is an institution, with a lovely rich deep sound (not what you’d think of for Debussy, but it works), and an odd orchestral layout with the clarinets and bassoons the ‘wrong’ way round — I wonder why? 

And tonight is Martinu (4th Piano Concerto) so I can’t miss that.  Meanwhile, the sun is shining…

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