Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Prom 5: Hagner/WDR SO/Bychkov - Wagner, Mendelssohn, Gunther Schuller, and Strauss, 20 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Lohengrin: Prelude to Act One
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64
Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends (United Kingdom premiere)
Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Viviane Hagner (violin)
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

If this concert proved a little mixed in quality, that was in no way the fault of either the fine WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, or its outgoing – outgone? – Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov. The Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin kindled in its burnished glow memories of Bychkov conducting the complete opera at Covent Garden last season. Wagner’s unendliche Melodie was to the fore, even before the letter. The orchestra’s silken strings ensured æthereal beauty, whilst Bychkov guided the music’s progress with a sure hand. Even a barrage of coughing and, immediately in front of me, mobile telephone usage could not entirely obscure the performance.

The problem arose when Viviane Hagner arrived on stage for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I had heard Hagner once before, at the Proms in 2007; whilst underwhelmed, I had given her the benefit of the doubt in the Beethoven concerto on account of so lacklustre a contribution from the podium. Here, I am afraid, there was no one else to blame, for her constricted tone and tight vibrato, unrelieved throughout, contrasted so starkly, and not in a creative fashion, with the warmth of the WDR SO’s strings and its enchanted woodwind. If only a Mendelssohn symphony or the Midsummer Night’s Dream music had been on the programme instead… At best, this was a merely efficient rendition, with no sense of any meaning lying behind the notes, no soul. Hagner sounded as if she would have been happier playing Paganini or Vieuxtemps, especially when she engaged in self-conscious, quite inappropriately virtuosic antics during the finale. Sometimes, arbitrary fussiness of phrasing intruded, once again in stark contrast with Bychkov’s handling of the orchestral ebb and flow. All the while, that tight, unremitting vibrato would not let one go. It was like hearing a Schubert Liederabend from a mechanical soubrette.

The final item in the third half could hardly have been more different: the United Kingdom premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Where the World Ends. Written for the 125th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2006, it was eventually performed, after the necessary extra rehearsals, in 2009 under James Levine. Though I was not entirely convinced by the piece – the fault, upon a single hearing, may well, I own, be entirely mine – this is just the sort of thing the BBC should be supporting. We are not exactly overburdened with performances of New England modernism in this country; sadly, orchestras or at least orchestral managers prefer to foist crowd-pleasing Adams or excruciating Glass upon us rather than take a chance with Babbitt. Schuller is a figure more difficult to pin down: as Calum Macdonald’s programme’s note put it, ‘he has absorbed many different musical tendencies (post-Schoenbergian serialism, Stravinskian orchestration, the combinatorial thinking of Milton Babbitt, big-band jazz, electronic music and popular commercial ballad style, all of these sometimes seriously and sometimes in parody) in a remarkably undoctrinaire way, calling on whatever means he has thought appropriate for the matter in hand.’ One could certainly hear a few of those tendencies in Where the World Ends, so titled, according to the composer, because music takes over where words can no longer express. In essence, one might speak of a concerto for orchestra: Schuller, himself a conductor, clearly has an expert ear for orchestral sound. One of the most absorbing sounds was at the very opening, when we seemed to hear a primaeval string becoming, extremely finely played by the WDR SO strings; it was fun to hear a Fafner-like tuba towards the end too. Trombone slides and muted trumpets would evoke the world of jazz, whilst the ghost of Stravinsky hovered over the repeated-note figures of the final Allegro vivace section. Leader, Slava Chestiglasov performed his solo in the trio of the third (of four) section ravishingly, so much better than Hagner in the Mendelssohn! The second, Adagio section, however opened in a fashion startlingly – doubtless unintentionally – reminiscent of the Khatchaturian Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. This set the tone for the neo-Romanticism – born, it would seem from Schuller’s ‘magic row’, in which groupings of three adjacent pitch classes form tonal triads – of that section, which seemed a little too eclectic, incongruous even. Bychkov and his orchestra played with commitment throughout; they will surely have won the composer converts.

The second half of the concert was given over to the work I had most wanted to hear: Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Though there were many instrumental beauties en route, Bychkov’s account was uncompromisingly symphonic, to the extent that occasionally, for instance as we passed the waterfall, I should have been happy to linger a little longer. He was doubtless right: the last thing this work needs, given the continued existence of nay-sayers, is a sprawling performance. The night from which the tone poem emerges was full of expectancy, which even a very noisy audience, or section thereof, could not quite obliterate. Key to this was a wonderfully clear, Rheingold¬-like bass line: Richard the Third indeed. If I found the sunrise slightly precipitate, there was clearly symphonic method to Bychkov’s approach; the ascent was also no dawdle, but it was heroic, in a Heldenleben-like, even Beethovenian, way – all to the good. And the heft of the WDR SO string section – larger, it should be noted, than the paltry BBC forces for the Proms opener, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony! – was both welcome and necessary, here and at the glorious summit itself. As I regretted the brevity of the mountain-side apparition, I appreciated its symphonic necessity: Bychkov’s musical instinct was absolutely right not to linger over Strauss’s phantasmagorical delights. We were lost in the thickets, but this was a conductor who knew how to put us on our way. I should not, however, mean to imply that there was no sense of Nature, far from it: here, in contrast to Mahler, a cowbell is just a cowbell. And how evocative those Alpine bells sounded! Within formal bounds, that is. Brass proved resplendent in the face of the glacier, whilst Manuel Bilz’s solo oboe, Lothar Koch-like, provided a true sense of human frailty: faltering, but ever so musically. Upon the descent, Bychkov impressed upon us the battle between the physical and metaphysical Strauss thought he had settled – but this tone poem tells us otherwise. The rising mists and obscuring of the sun were properly ambiguous: are they just that, or is there something more? One can revel in Strauss’s orchestration, and the orchestra did, but there was purpose here too, even if one cannot quite define it. Roderick Shaw sounded tremendous on the organ – what a work out it has been receiving during the opening Proms! – but the WDR SO brass were at least equally so, quite magnificent. Likewise the unsettling, even slightly nauseating, strings with their Frau ohne Schatten harmonies. I am not entirely sure that Strauss’s storm evades melodrama, but Bychkov’s no-nonsense way with it paid dividends. More importantly, the epilogue sang a noble tune indeed, the final horn calls moving this listener to tears. What a pity, then, that premature applause killed the mood before Bychkov had even dropped his arms. A little consideration would go a long way.


Angus said...

True about the premature applause at the end, a shame about that. As for the Schuller, I struggled to find anything likeable about it at all. There was such a lack of continuity throughout, which was a shame, because it was clearly hugely difficult to play, meaning the orchestra deserved considerably more appreciation than the composer, which unfortunately they were not given.

Michael said...

Dear Mark,

In light of the applause 'issues' that affect the Proms, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this piece by Tom Service.

Mark Berry said...


The short answer would be that Tom Service is a journalist. A slightly lengthier answer would be that it is the sort of faux populism - does any of us know a real person who has ever expressed a desire to applaud in the middle of a concerto or symphony? - from which a certain sort of inversely snobbish journalist earns his crust.

A slightly lengthier answer than that would be that there is nothing to praise in members of an audience who are so thoughtless and/or selfish that they wish to register their largely irrelevant instant reactions to something, no matter what the effect upon the performers or indeed the rest of the audience. It is possible, I am sure, for someone who has never been to a concert before to do 'the wrong thing'. That does not matter at all, but one learns. Just as I should have considered it a gross discourtesy at a recent Jewish wedding ceremony I attended not to have done what I was asked to do and to wear a skull cap, so I consider it a discourtesy for people to act as they wish, irrespective of other concert-goers. That there was a time when applause within works was more common is neither here nor there: recourse to such an argument seems to me as weak as any other 'authenticke' claim. Take a letter from Mozart to his wife concerning a performance of 'The Magic Flute'. He recounts that the usual numbers were encored, ‘but what gives me most pleasure is the silent approval,’ indicating ‘how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed’. That was in 1791; we are now, post-Romantically, in 2010, so on might say that Service and his ilk are lagging severely behind.

EC said...

I am in complete agreement. Last night's late night prom was another marred by insensitive applause (aside from mobile phones, strategically going off at key times, including the final phrase of the final nocturne programmed.. and fits of coughs.. and shuffling of paper). I say marred hesitantly though, because the playing from Pires was of such a high order that nothing could take away the ultimate pleasure from the evening. This year has seen a Chopin bombardment in London (and I'm sure elsewhere) and I have heard Zimerman, Pollini, Perahia, Yundi.. the list goes on. None of those recitals (some really fantastic) felt quite as "right" as Pires. Thankfully it seems that she is not retiring and I hope she returns to London soon.

PS. Michael (post above) may be interested to know that Tom Service introduced the prom last night, requesting that the audience hold their applause till the end of the evening, which completely made sense - though most of the audience didn't think so, and clapped anyway. Sigh - I don't know what to say anymore.

Mark Berry said...

That really makes me wish I had gone to hear Pires. I was tempted, but with four Proms from the previous five evenings, I needed a bit little respite. Oddly, small-scale performances seem to work rather well in the RAH. I have never heard a piano recital there, but one of my highlights - perhaps the one I'd choose above all others - from last year was members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing the Mendelssohn Octet and the Berg Chamber Concerto. Perhaps it is a matter of 'normal' orchestral works often sounding insufficient in the acoustic, whereas one's ears have different expectations for chamber and solo music.

Mark Berry said...

P.S. I was straining to be generous when it came to the Schuller piece - partly because I thought it was something genuinely to be praised that the BBC and the performers were affording us an opportunity to hear his music. If the result was less than entirely inspiring, at least we had the chance to reach that conclusion.