Monday, 20 July 2015

Prom 4 - CBSO/Nelsons: Beethoven and Woolrich, 19 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven –The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43: Overture
Woolrich – Falling Down (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Margaret Cookhorn (contrabassoon)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Pavel Černoch (tenor)
Kostas Smoriginas (bass-baritone)

CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert. I could really find nothing about which to cavil at the orchestral performance. Andris Nelsons’s conducting, however, remained distinctly mixed in quality. He eschewed fashionable ideas concerning tempo and offered a refreshingly slow introduction. The main body of the Overture started intriguingly post-Mozartian fashion, seeming – surprisingly – to hint at The Marriage of Figaro. However, Rossini soon, bizarrely, seemed to supplant Mozart, and we found ourselves in the world of Toscanini. The Beethovenian weight of Klemperer was nowhere to be heard. If ‘Italianate’ Beethoven were your thing, you would probably have liked it more than I did.

John Woolrich’s Falling Down, ‘a capricho for double bassoon and orchestra’, followed. The solo part was taken by Margaret Cookhorn, the dedicatee of this piece, first performed by the same forces in 2009 as a CBSO commission. They all seemed to play it very well indeed; I wish I could have thought more of the work itself. A colourful, spiky, somewhat Stravinskian opening augured well, its material reappearing throughout the quarter of an hour or so. Some harmonies put me in mind a little of Prokofiev, and there was indeed, something of a balletic quality. Antiphonally placed timpani had an important role, well taken. But once one is past the interesting ‘experience’ of a concertante piece for contrabassoon, Falling Down seems, at best, over-extended. There is only so much it can do as a solo instrument but, more to the point, what soloist and orchestra do soon seems repetitive. I have responded much more readily to the composer’s Monteverdi reworkings.

The performance of the Ninth Symphony grew in stature, but I am afraid this was not – for me, although the audience in general seemed wildly enthusiastic – that elusive, compelling modern performance we all crave. Daniel Barenboim’s Proms performance in 2012 was nowhere challenged – not least since there was no doubt whatsoever in Barenboim’s performance that the work meant something, and something of crucial, undying importance at that. There was good news in the first movement. First, it was not taken absurdly fast; nor was it metronomic in its progress. And yet, despite the undoubted excellence of the CBSO’s playing, I found myself at a loss as to what the music in performance might actually mean. Too often, extreme dynamic contrasts – somewhat smoothed over by the notorious Albert Hall acoustic – seemed just that; why was a phrase played quite so softly? There was wonderful clarity, enabling woodwind lines not just to be heard, but to sing. What, however, were they singing about? There was real menace, though, in the coda, even if it seemed somewhat to have come from nowhere. Applause: really?!

The Scherzo was taken fast, very fast: nothing wrong with that. My chief reservation remained, however, and ultimately this was a smoothly ‘reliable’ performance rather than a revelation. Where were the anger, the vehemence, the human obstreperousness of Beethoven? Applause proves still less welcome here. The slow movement was taken at a convincing tempo, its hushed nobility, with especial thanks to euphonious woodwind, greatly welcome. I was less convinced that the metaphysical dots were joined up, or even, sometimes, noticed. Whatever my doubts, though, there was no denying the beauty of the playing (an intervention from an audience glass towards the close notwithstanding).

Nelsons forestalled applause, thank goodness, by moving immediately to the finale. He and the orchestra fairly sprung into and through its opening: very impressive on its own terms, although it would surely have hit home harder, had it been properly prepared by what had gone before. The cellos really dug into their strings too. Nelsons had them and the double basses paly deliciously softly for their recitative; now, a true sense of drama announced itself, expectant rather than merely soft. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas delivered his ‘proper’ recitative, ‘O Freunde …’, with almost Sarastro-like sincerity and deliberation. I liked the way the rejection of such ‘Töne’ was no easy decision. The soloists as a whole did a good job; that there remains a multiplicity of options, and dare, I suggest, a residual insufficiency to any one quartet, says more about Beethoven’s strenuousness of vision and humility before his God than performance as such. The CBSO Chorus, singing from memory, was quite simply outstanding. Weight and clarity reinforced each other rather than proving, as so often, contradictory imperatives. Nelsons imparted an unusual sense of narrative propulsion, almost as if this were an opera, or at least an oratorio: I am not sure what I think of such a conception, but it was interesting to hear it, and there was no doubting now the conviction with which it was instantiated. The almost superhuman clarity of the chorus’s words – ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!’ a fitting climax to that first section – certainly helped. It was fun, moreover, to be reminded of the contrabassoon immediately afterwards. (Was that the tenuous connection with the Woolrich piece?) The infectious quality to the ‘Turkish March’ brought with it welcome reminiscences of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. And the return to ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ proved exultant in that deeply moving way that is Beethoven’s own. (If only the abuse of this work by the European Union had not had me think of the poor Greeks at this point – but, on second thoughts, that was probably a good thing too.) If only Nelsons could have started again, and reworked the meaning he seemed to find here into the earlier movements, especially the first two, we might have had a great performance. As it stood, there remained a good deal later on to have us think.


Simon-L said...

it's always interesting to read reviews with which one disagrees. I felt (from my position near the front of the arena) that this was the most electrifying performance of the Ninth I have ever heard - such a contrast to the 'steady as she goes' mediocrity of last year.

One of the most interesting aspects was hearing a reading that was not indebted to a particular tradition. It clearly had little in common with the sort of Period-inflected versions that we hear so routinely these days, but neither did it follow in the footsteps of an obviously Romantic concept. I agree, Mark, that Nelsons was trying to tell a story (particularly in the first movement) but I felt that it was more convincing than you seemed to find it. It put me in mind at times (not that I want to stretch the comparison too far) of the wartime Furtwangler version, in the way he managed to knit all of the elements together. The scherzo (such a difficult movement to bring off anyway, in my opinion) was less convincing, but the slow movement was a joy - when so many performances can run out of his steam, this one kept going. I have been to Proms where you almost doze off and then wake up when the fireworks get going in the fourth movement. The choral singing was astonishing, at times hair raising. The quartet didn't have any weak links, although the bass had the muddiest German diction I have heard in some time.

It was such a privilege to be present for music making of this calibre. I have reached the stage in concert going when I would much rather hear the intense commitment (and also high quality) of slightly less heralded orchestras like the CBSO than more glamourous ones like the BPO. I just don't think you would get the kind of frisson we experienced last night - many finding it a very emotional experience

Anyway, just thought I would offer an alternative view.

Mark Berry said...

Yes, thank you ever so much for doing so, Simon. I was clearly in a (small) minority, judging by the reaction both in the hall and afterwards.

Roger Thomas said...

Hi Mark,
For info not publication as comment. It was Prom 4, not Prom 5. Best, Roger

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Roger. Now corrected.