Proms: RSNO/Deneve, Chicago Symphony Orch/Haitink

Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now seriously back at work full-time so no time for lengthy blog, alas.  However, I must celebrate the end of my Prom-going season which ended with a couple of crackers!

 

Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Saturday) gave a stunning performance of Debussy’s La Mer – dazzling orchestral detail, lovingly shaped, deeply felt.  Denève (conducting without a score) may have lingered slightly over some of the significant turning points, but I felt this was absolutely ‘his’ music and he was totally inside it.  Lovely orchestral playing, especially the finely-tuned woodwind and acutely pointed trumpets (if you see what I mean).  Unbelievably quiet pianissimos when required, and blazing loud passages that seemed to point to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (never thought that about La Mer before).  (But where were the disputed fanfares in the last movement?)

 

(Going backwards through their programme…) The less said about their Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough the better.  Hough was having an off night (nerves?), stumbling and hurrying all over the place.  The orchestra was stodgy, dull and ragged.  It felt like a bad ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ performance.

 

Thea Musgrave’s ‘Rainbow’ was nice – pretty, simple, appropriately colourful, did what it said on the tin.

 

Albert Roussel’s Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2 was a revelation – great music, chirpy, quirky, powerful and dangerous.  Lovely stuff.

 

On Tuesday it was Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – I couldn’t make the Mahler 6 the previous night, so this one was not to be missed (and very crowded it was too).

 

One rarely hears ‘big-orchestra’ Mozart these days – although it could be argued that Mozart‘s C minor Piano Concerto, K491, is itself ‘big-orchestra Mozart’ – the biggest wind section he ever wrote for in a piano concerto:  one flute, pairs of oboes AND clarinets (usually it was either/or), bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani.

 

At the piano was Murray Perahia – genial, masterful, solid and reassuring, if without surprises and without quite catching that magical sense of Mozart himself sitting there and inventing what we are hearing.  On this showing the CSO’s sound was what might be termed ‘traditional American’ – not self-consciously ‘beautiful’ or excessively rich or plush, but – again – solid and reliable, accurate, dead in tune.  The woodwinds in particular had a ‘old-fashioned’ sound – slightly reedy and thin, little or no vibrato, the bassoon veiled and somewhat stuffy.  Very nice all round though, and it was lovely to watch Haitink gently interacting with Perahia and giving him all the support he needed.

 

Then Shostakovich 4 – a piece I’d never heard before.  This was amazing.  Extraordinary symphony (the one that he supposedly suppressed after being criticised by Stalin), full of alarums and excursions, impossibly loud explosions and quiet pianissimi, sudden cuckoos and raspberries.  While not entirely avoiding the suspicion that it was constructed according to the well-known formal principle of ‘one damn thing after another’, it held the attention unfailingly over its long (70-minute) span.  Bassoon (a different one, with more vibrato and a lovely smoky tone) had some big solos, and the contra had a lot of fun too!  The huge woodwind section was given plenty to do, and the brass had that terrific in-your-face American sound and deadly accurate technique that suited this work just fine.  The impressive array of nine horns was led by the legendary Dale Clevenger, not quite 100% split-free but he too had some taxing solos.  At the end, poor Bernard looked exhausted.  (Well, he is 79!  That’s unbelievable.)

 

An amazing way to end my 2008 Prom season on a high (no, I’m NOT going to the Last Night!).  Despite the constraints of the Italy trip at one end and going back to work at the other, I’ve managed 25 Proms, which works out at £7.80 per concert – pretty good particularly when you think of all the queuing time saved by having a season ticket.

 

The Proms are a great institution, a National Treasure we are unbelievably lucky to have every year.  Long may they reign…

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photo of Bernard Haitink stolen from Falling Tree Productions http://www.fallingtree.co.uk/broadc.htm — thanks!

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