Monday 6 August 2007

Prom 31: Brahms, Elgar, Strauss

5 August 2007

Brahms: Variations on a theme by Haydn, Op.56a
Elgar: Variations on an original theme ('Enigma')
Strauss: Oboe Concerto in D major
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier

Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (conductor)

This concert should have been conducted by Daniele Gatti, but illness had caused him to withdraw, leaving Gennadi Rozhdestvensky to deputise. I could not help thinking that it might have been a different occasion without this intervention from Fate; nor could I help thinking that Rozhdestvensky would have been happier conducting Prokofiev, or some other music with which he was more closely associated. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is not London's finest, but I have heard it perform more than creditably under Gatti, in Mahler and Berg. Here, for much of the time, it did not.

The concert opened with a weak performance of the Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn. (Brahms used this title, so I do not think we need modishly change it, now that we believe that Haydn composed neither the theme, nor the divertimento in which Brahms discovered it.) It was not perverse, as was the performance Sir Simon Rattle gave with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms a few years ago, when far too much was fussily underlined, or italicised, or both. However, the orchestra sounded lacklustre, and whilst certain variations received a degree of characterisation, others went for little, and there was almost no sense of forming part of a greater whole. It is not an easy thing to characterise and yet to integrate into a great symphonic sweep, yet the piece demands it. Furtwängler was able to do this, as have quite a few subsequent conductors, but it was not to be. Throughout, the strings, although hardly few in number, sounded faint and watery; that echt-Brahmsian dark-mahogany richness of tone was never to be heard. The final peroration sounded brighter, but when the most impressive things were a suitably rustic contrabasson and the sonorous ringing of the triangle, more than a little was amiss. Here, as elsewhere throughout the evening, members of the orchestra were sometimes alarmingly out of kilter with their colleagues.

The Enigma Variations were less lacklustre, though hardly memorable. This was not a typically 'English' reading. There is nothing wrong with that, for different perspectives can shed interesting light on well-known works, but it did not seem a fully considered alternative. Flashes of orchestral colour, often surprisingly brash, alternated with a great deal of run-of-the-mill playing. 'Nimrod' was deeply felt, an almost Beethovenian oasis of noble calm, but little of the rest lived up to its promise. The brass section acquitted itself very well, as it would whenever called upon throughout the night. Unfortunately, this served above all to highlight the shortcomings of the wishy-washy strings.

The second half was better. Perhaps Strauss was more Rozhdestvensky's thing, or perhaps he simply knew the pieces better. I am not quite sure that the latter was true, at least in the case of the Oboe Concerto. For whilst the ensemble was much improved, he seemed content to adopt an 'accompanying' role that seasoned Straussians such as Kempe or Karajan would never have considered. The orchestral woodwind provided its own piquant detail from time to time, but this was really the soloist's show. Suffice it to say that Alexei Ogrintchouk proved a very fine oboist - and a very fine musician. Ever attentive to the twists and turns of Strauss's often treacherously lengthy lines, his varied singing tone, aided by crafty yet concealed tonguing, lifted the evening's music-making to another level. This neo-Mozartian product of Strauss's fabled 'Indian summer' sounded like the lyrical successor to Daphne that it is, rather than a soloist's showcase. A pupil of Maurice Bourgue and already Principal Oboist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Ogrintchouk deserves to go far indeed.

A suite from Der Rosenkavalier ended the concert. Here, at last, the whole orchestra sounded more committed. If the strings hardly compared to those of Vienna, at least they sounded less grey. The leader, Clio Gould's solo was quite delectable; she had been poorly served by her colleagues for most of the concert. The brass once again and the percussion shone. The horns' coital whooping during the Overture truly sounded like the 'real thing'. Yet the selection was strangely made, and did not tally with the 1945 Suite Michael Kennedy delineated in the programme. It may have been that selection (possibly by Artur Rodzinski) minus the Presentation of the Rose and the excerpt from the Trio; at any rate, those moments of sweet repose were absent, lending the rather arbitrary progression of what remained an undue brashness. All in all, this was not an evening of triumph, save for that undoubtedly pertaining to Ogrintchouk.