S&H Concert review

PROM 47: Debussy, Martinu, Brahms Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, RAH, 25 August 2001 (CT)

This was the first visit to the Proms by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for ten years and also the first concert in a European tour for the orchestra taking in a number of major cities, including a visit to the Edinburgh Festival. Of the two Prom performances, both featured a work commissioned for the orchestra, in this case the Martinu which received its premiere under Charles Munch in 1955 (the following evening was to feature Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, written for Koussevitzky).

For my taste the familiar flute solo which opens the Debussy could have been a little more limpid although the sounds that followed were wonderfully sumptuous. I soon found myself drawn into the silkily smooth sound of the orchestra, a happy legacy of Koussevitzky and Munch, which gladly remains. The elegance of the playing, allied with delicate attention to phrasing and balance immediately impressed, resulting in a beautifully homogenous sound, the like of which I have not been able to attribute to many American orchestras in recent times. The capricious central section had an impish playfulness about it, delightful stuff, and the ending was touching in its sincerity. My only gripe is that overall; perhaps it just lacked that last ounce of erotic sensuality. But no matter, my attention was aroused!

In her programme note, Paula Kennedy describes Martinu's Fantaisies symphoniques as his "most personal and imaginative work," sentiments with which I would agree entirely. It is also his most deeply felt symphony I feel and this was a performance of pathos that was imbued with atmosphere from the opening ghostly bars. There was so much to admire here, the almost understated yet warm and full brass, the fabulous violin solo set against martial percussion part way through the first movement that was superbly captured, the darkly ominous opening of the central Poco allegro and the glorious melodic statement at the work's conclusion. One feels that this is not only the synthesis of Martinu's creative life, but the synthesis of Czech music spanning the preceding one hundred years, from Smetana to Dvorak, from Suk to Janacek, the whole welded into Martinu's highly individual melodic and harmonic voice. Haitink gave us a thoughtfully and painstakingly prepared performance, the orchestra clearly putting their soul into the music.

I have to say that after the Martinu the Brahms came almost as an anti-climax, although this too possessed the same Haitink branded characteristics of attention to phrasing and delicately poised balance. Here again was a performance of spirit and whilst Brahms aficionados will have their opinions as to the interpretative merits of the reading I found that Haitink allowed the music to breathe in a refreshingly natural manner. The overriding solemnity of the Adagio non troppo was particularly affecting with lovely washes of colour from the brass whilst it was the pastoral quality of the Allegretto Grazioso that came to the surface with delightfully mellifluous playing in the more fluid passages. Ultimately however it was the final Allegro con spirito that gave me the most pleasure, the initial statement of the D major theme stamping an immediate authority on the movement's progress. The briefly passing darkness at the end of the development, an echo of the melancholic slow movement, seemed all the more profound as a result and the blazing conclusion was truly joyous in its execution. A fine performance with a characterful (if rather predictable!) Brahms Hungarian Dance as an encore bringing the evening to a fitting conclusion.

Christopher Thomas

Seen&Heard is part of MusicWeb Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web