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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROMS 19 and 20: Dvorak, Strauss, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Gidon Kremer (vln), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, RAH, 30th and 31st July 2004 (MB)
It was Joseph Hall who wrote that "perfection is the child of time." In part, that is what both these Proms came to symbolise – a level of musical and artistic perfection that could have come from no time other than our own, albeit with a reflective look back to a pre-war period that seemed more able to believe in the electrifying energy of music. One could argue, of course, as Goethe did, that certain flaws are necessary and, of course, perfection, or the seeking of perfection, can be a demoralizing experience, especially in the concert hall. But there are degrees of perfection – as there are in anything else – and in the case of the musical partnership that Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have that search for the absolute is based on shared values and shared instincts.
When I first heard this orchestra and conductor in February this year I described it as one of the most exciting musical marriages today. These Proms reconfirm that and suggest that the BRSO/Jansons partnership is on course to match that of the Kubelik/BRSO one from the 1970s, one of the orchestra’s post-war periods of triumph. Arguably it is the orchestra’s flexibility, its ability to play like an enlarged chamber orchestra, and its chameleon-like tonal qualities that make this possible. Few, if any, orchestras seem so at home in the differing idioms of nineteenth and twentieth century music as this orchestra does, and only a handful can equal that celebration of the individual within the collective whole, something only an orchestra with an embedded understanding of opera and the voice can begin to nurture.
Ein Heldenleben, the second work of the first concert, defines this most clearly. How often has Strauss’ densely configured orchestration emerged with such clarity of phrasing? Rarely have I heard woodwind scythe their way through ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ with a juxtaposition of spitzig und schnarrend, and yet retain the evocative tonal qualities of the voice. How often does the complex violin solo in this work take on the vocal embellishments it is supposed to evoke? In this performance it did just that. Jansons manipulated detail sparingly (except for the introduction of an unwritten second timpani stroke at the work’s conclusion) and in so doing gave us an unblemished performance that integrated masterful playing (a superlative horn solo at the work’s close could stand as an epithet to this orchestra’s peerless technique) with highly spontaneous musical direction. How magnificently the orchestra coped with a sudden blackout of lights on stage; their response, during ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’, as they played in the shadows, was to simply ratchet up the tension to even greater levels of incandescence and fire, a lone light circling round the auditorium as the Blitzkrieg waged onwards.
Things had been very different in the Dvorak. This was a performance of the Eighth Symphony that compressed the work’s Tchaikovskian storms and Brahmsian melodies into a singular view of the work’s pastoral overtones. There was ample proof of this orchestra’s sumptuously toned string playing, but Jansons also put due emphasis on the woodwind: bird-like flute playing and shivery clarinets shone wonderfully. And if the performance made much of the riotous finale it also made much of the slumber that frames the adagio.
The second concert was similarly fascinating, juxtaposing Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, a unifying theme perhaps being that both works evoke the terror of the Requiem. Gidon Kremer (playing from a score) was the notable soloist, perhaps more astringent of tone than is usual with this work, but clearly intent on placing it within both its musical and historical contexts. Unlike his teacher, David Oistrakh, Kremer does not immerse the score into indissolvable darkness, hence the Nocturne became more Mahlerian, reminiscent of the Burlesque of Mahler’s Ninth. Yet the madness and darkness of the movement were validly interpreted from the orchestra, and even more so in the grieving fatality of the Scherzo which followed, here delivered with almost unsustainable virtuosity by the soloist and angst-ridden devilry from the orchestra’s woodwind. It was, however, the transcendental expressiveness of the Passacaglia that illuminated the performance reaching levels of pathos that were exceptionally dark hued. A scintillating, hard-driven Burlesque drove nails through a performance that was as transfigured as it was riveting.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth – a majestic, but difficult work to bring off – could have had no better advocate than Jansons. His viewpoint remains especially Russian and there is little room for sentiment; that he is so convincing in this work is partly due to his view that the simplicity and phrasing of the symphony are themselves a source of power. Both the second subject and development of the first movement, for example, had exceptional weight, though the tempi were lacerating, the drama almost overwhelming.
And it was the first movement that drew white-hot playing from the orchestra: the stormy fugato, splendidly managed by the orchestra’s trumpets and trombones, who drew fervour from their burnished tone, the fortissimo dialogue between strings and woodwind that had unusual clarity and the return of the second subject that plummeted the performance into the depths of despair. The recovery for the Scherzo and Trio was remarkably timed, the playing light and buoyant. And yet, the March reversed the mood almost immediately, its second subject, especially, stiffening the orchestra into playing of incessant rage. The movement’s climax and the rousing march for full orchestra were ignited by fury. It was all the more surprising to find Jansons conduct an Adagio that had an unrelenting darkness pervading every note (something that would not have been achievable without the fabulous string playing that compelled the movement on from Requiem to utter despair.) The desperation of the first subject and the drama of the second subject have rarely sounded more tragic than they did in this performance. It was absolutely raw.
Two exceptional concerts, and ample proof that the striving for perfection need not be a demoralizing experience. Personally, I can’t wait to move to Munich.
Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No.1, David Oistrakh, New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, SONY MHK 63327
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Karl Böhm, ORFEO C264921B
Tchaikovsky, Symphony No.6, Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, NAXOS 8110865