Monday 1 August 2011

Prom 21: Midori/CBSO/Nelsons - Strauss, Walton, and Prokofiev, 30 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Strauss – Don Juan, op.20
Walton – Violin Concerto
Prokofiev – Cantata: Alexander Nevsky, op.78
Strauss – Salome: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’

Midori (violin)
Nadzhda Serdiuk (mezzo-soprano)
CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Hopes, at least mine, ran high after last year’s outstanding Prom from the CBSO and Andris Nelsons. Alas, they were not really fulfilled in this curiously programmed concert. If last year, I noted that a ‘traditional’, non-conceptual, programme of overture-concerto-symphony had been renewed in these musicians’ hands, the present combination and ordering made no more sense in the hall than it had on paper. Indeed, given the frankly incoherent nature of Walton’s Violin Concerto, I began wearily to wonder whether incoherence were the guiding thread that attempted to impart coherence. (If so, it did not succeed.)

Don Juan certainly proceeded in such a vein, suggesting that Nelsons viewed it as superior film music – a potential connection with Walton and Prokofiev? – rather than a symphonic poem. His hyperactive podium style irritated somewhat when so misapplied: calming down, one suspected, might have permitted the music to breathe more easily. The opening had precision, yet seemed both driven in the manner of an orchestral showpiece – not unlike Claudio Abbado’s LSO recording: I suspect he would perform it very differently now – and all too audibly moulded. Strauss’s music may not ‘be’ natural, but it needs to sound as if it is more than ‘mere’ artifice. It is only fair to say that the CBSO’s orchestral performance was very fine: slower material sounded undeniably gorgeous, with glowing strings. Solos were exquisitely taken, for instance by leader Zoë Beyers and principal oboist, Rainer Gibbons, the latter’s line beautifully spun in musical and narrative terms. What the performance lacked was either a Kempe-like symphonic integrity or some attempt to deconstruct the hero as in Boulez’s fascinating Chicago recording of Also sprach Zarathustra. Nelsons’s Strauss appeared to be an irony-free zone.

Next came Walton’s Violin Concerto. Here the problem lay principally with the work itself, which frankly, even by Walton’s standards, is third-rate. The first movement sounded as if Elgar had wandered into a cocktail lounge, sauntered around aimlessly for a while and then another while, plagiarising Prokofiev as he wandered. That was as true of the violin part, here performed by Midori, as the orchestral writing. Midori mostly had the technical measure of the piece, though there were, perhaps surprisingly, awkward intonational moments, but she lacked the charisma necessary to transmute the material into something that might have glittered. If anything, the better performance came from the orchestra, Nelsons relishing Walton’s syncopations, and the woodwind solos quite ravishing when considered on their own terms – that is, somewhat akin to instrumental ‘colour’ for a television series. The second movement, if hardly profound, is less embarrassing; the performers captured well its Neapolitan mood, though I could not help reflecting wistfully that Busoni accomplished such things so much more interestingly. Midori had the measure of the Prokofiev-like writing; the orchestra heralded a sense of fantasy. But it was not clear that either ‘side’ was saying much to the other. Elgar returned to the mélange for the finale, though Prokofiev was not vanquished, some progressions sounding as if they had been lifted more or less wholesale from the Russian composer’s scores (and not just the violin concertos). Soaring lyricism – well, relatively so – vied with film score bombast. Some Midori fans went wild; the rest of us repaired to the bar.

It was nevertheless good to hear so vivid a performance of the Alexander Nevsky cantata. Whereas last year in Salzburg, I had admired Riccardo Muti’s Vienna Philharmonic account of Ivan the Terrible whilst being more than a little bored by the seemingly interminable 'oratorio', Nevsky emerged – as it is – a much stronger, coherent work. Nelsons imparted an electric quality to the pregnant opening section, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke,’ which would rarely desert him. The splendid neo-Mussorgskian opening to ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’ was equally well captured, the composer’s trademark harmonic side-slipping relished, the CBSO strings grinding under the yoke of oppression. I was surprised at the hesitance of the CBSO Chorus’s performance early on, but by the time, of ‘Arise, Russian People’, it had strengthened, the block antiphonal exchanges between men and women coming across with admirable clarity. Mention must also be given to the excellent xylophonist. The central ‘Battle on the Ice’ had just the right sort of cinematic quality, yet convinced as music too, prophetic of the great ‘war symphonies’ still to come. Cumulative power was again reminiscent of Mussorgsky. Nadzhda Serdiuk had but a single number, yet sounded impressively soulful in ‘The Field of the Dead’. If the final ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’ is not quite the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, it was played as if it were, admixed with witty, Lieutenant Kijé-like interventions. During the concluding bars, I fancied that I could hear an organ, but it was simply the CBSO’s peals of rejoicing.

I was at a loss to understand why it was thought a good idea to follow Alexander Nevsky with the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome. Even as an ‘advertised encore’ it was not an obvious choice. Moreover, for all the excellence of execution, the overall effect was not dissimilar to that of Don Juan. The orchestral phantasmagoria towards the end was properly nauseous, but again there was more than a hint of film music. And I could not help but expect to hear Herod at the end, and feel disappointment when I did not.