Posted tagged ‘Barenboim’

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long — not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

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photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)

Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms

September 9, 2007

Once upon a time, orchestras from different countries – or even cities – had their own immediately identifiable characteristics:  London, Paris, Prague, Moscow…  These days, the Vienna Philharmonic is almost the last upholder of a regional tradition.  The clarinettist no longer has his reed tied on with string, and I couldn’t see whether the oboes were the Viennese ‘cotton-reel’ variety, but they still use rotary-valve trumpets and distinctive Viennese horns (even if they are made by Yamaha), and the double basses bow with an ‘underhand’ action (which is historically authentic, since double basses are technically members of the viol family, which bowed underhand, and the other string instruments belong to the upstart violin family.  End of history lesson).

I got excited to see 14 double basses and only 12 cellos listed in the programme;  here was living proof of the contention that Beethoven would have had more basses than cellos in his orchestra.  But alas, there were never more than eight basses on the platform at any one moment.
 
(‘Tradition’ has its bad aspects too.  Still ‘saucepan lid’ cymbals and poor percussion generally;  still very few women in the band, mostly tucked away on back desks;  and no named harpist in the programme, despite two on the platform – if you haven’t yet been accepted as a permanent member of the orchestra, you don’t get your name in the programme [unless you are ‘on trial’ at the State Opera] even if you have played with them for many years, like the hapless lady harpist in the 1970s.)

Anyway, it was a treat to hear the VPO at the Proms last week.  Silky strings, gorgeous brass, characterful woodwind;  impeccable tuning, immaculate phrasing, a suavity of music making based on 165 years of playing together… The combined pressures of the day job and a London Underground strike kept me away from Barenboim’s first Prom with the VPO last Monday, an echt-Viennese treat of Schubert and Bruckner.  The Bruckner (4th Symphony) sounded absolutely glorious on Radio 3.  I wish I had been there, but after Mahler 7 the night before I would not physically have been able to stand up for another 75-minute symphony! (more…)