Friday, 31 August 2012

Prom 63: Berlin Philharmonic Rattle Ligeti Wagner Sibelius Debussy Ravel 30 August 2012

Ligeti: Atmosphères
Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin
Sibelius: Symphony No.4
Debussy: Jeux
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2

                                                                   (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

The Berlin Philharmonic were on fire this evening. Simon Rattle put an eclectic programme of music in front of them, that repeatedly took them a long way outside their comfort zone, but they rose to its many challenges magnificently. The orchestra didn't quite manage to maintain that white hot intensity for the whole concert, but even at its weakest points, it never dropped below world-class.
I have to confess a reservation about Rattle's programming of avant garde music with the Berlin Phil. The orchestra's famous chocolatey sting sound adds little to Messiaen, for example, so why bother performing that, or this evening's Ligeti, with an orchestra whose strengths lie elsewhere? I was wrong, very wrong. As the first, incandescent sounds of Atmosphères reached us from the far side of the cavernous Albert Hall, it was immediately clear that this was going to be an extraordinary performance.
The dreadful acoustic of the Albert Hall defeats most orchestras, but even this impediment has no serious effect on the Berlin Philharmonic. Ligeti opens his work with an inscrutable pianissimo cluster in the upper woodwinds, and the warm glow that the players gave this sound filled the hall, even at their minuscule dynamic. The rest of the work was just as absorbing and, yes, that chocolaty string sound turned out to be absolutely ideal. The performance was distinctive, but always true to the spirit of the work. It gave the lie to the often stated view that avant garde music should only be performed and never interpreted.
Rattle segued Atmosphères directly into the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. If that is the justification required to perform this Modernist classic, then so be it, but I don't think either work really benefited. The idea seemed to be a transition from chaos to order, or from darkness to light. Wagner suffered more than Ligeti from this imposed narrative, as Rattle was obliged to remove any traces of complexity or darkness from the Prelude in order to create the required contrast. It was still a spellbinding performance though, and a tour de force from every section of the orchestra.
A well-connected source told me before the concert that Rattle had had difficulties getting the orchestra to consent to playing a Sibelius symphony. Apparently they haven't touched this repertoire since the Karajan days, and they were very reluctant to go back to it. That tension was apparent in the performance, with the orchestra often struggling to transmit the enthusiasm that was clearly reaching them from the podium. But Sibelius' Fourth doesn't really play to their strengths. The composer strenuously avoids the large tutti textures that are the orchestra's stock in trade, and replaces them with small ensembles that require a more astringent and contained sound. But the performance got better as it went on, and the third movement largo was the highlight. There was passion aplenty here, and the distinctive Berlin sound finally got a chance to contribute to the emotive impact.
The first piece after the interval demonstrated that it was not the radicalism of Sibelius' textures per se that had foxed the players beforehand. Debussy's Jeux is just as unusual in its deployment of the orchestra, perhaps more so. But this performance was ideal, and marked a glorious return to those glowing, luminous sounds that had made the Ligeti so special. There is usually a distinct sense of groundedness to the Berlin Phil string sound, which is totally at odds with the floating, filigree textures that Debussy calls for throughout this score. But somehow the orchestra managed to do both, creating a real depth of sound in the string textures, but without ever tying them down to the ground.
And then came the real crowning triumph of the evening, the Second Suite from Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe in a performance that brought together all the best qualities of the playing throughout the evening. Rattle was brave enough to let the flutes really stand out at the start, and the confidence and projection that they gave to the texture carried through the whole orchestra's performance right until the end of the work. And what ravishing climaxes, filling the whole hall with glorious, turbulent sensuous expression. The audience went absolutely wild afterwards. Who can blame them?

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Prom 39: Berlioz Requiem, Thierry Fischer

BBC National Chorus of Wales, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, BBC Nation Orchestra of Wales, Toby Spence (tenor), Thierry Fischer (conductor)
Berlioz: Grande messe des morts
Royal Albert Hall, 12.8.12

This has been a good year for Berlioz Requiems. It is only two months since Colin Davis conducted the work at St Paul’s, and since then Gardiner has performed it in Paris, in a concert web streamed live to appreciative British audiences.
Fortunately, Thierry Fischer is able to more than hold his own against those heavy weight Berlioz interpreters. He’s French of course, which has to be an asset [CORRECTION: He's Swiss, though I'm sure that's an asset too]. He also has an impressive skill in shepherding the huge forces the work employs. Nothing about the logistics of this undertaking visibly fazed him, and he was able to put in a distinctive and engaging interpretation. Berlioz asks for tempo changes, accels in particular, that more wary conductors might be inclined to ignore for the sake of ensemble. But Fischer confidently does everything the composer asks of him. Even so, this was a distinctly unsentimental reading; the tempos were fluid, but Fischer always resisted the temptation to dwell on the emotive climaxes, or to pull around the phrasing for emotive effect.
The choir, or choirs rather, were on his wavelength, and the choral singing was easily the best part of this performance. The ladies and gentlemen were positioned at opposite sides of the organ, but the coordination between them was never in question. Berlioz makes some extreme and unusual demands, but all were skilfully met. The tenors in particular have their work cut out, but coped well with all the high notes and awkward entries.
Sadly, Toby Spence couldn’t match the choir in his Sanctus solos. Spence underwent surgery on his throat earlier this year, so it is a wonder that he appeared at all this evening. But his voice clearly has not yet recovered. His performance was filled with emotion, and the legato with which he shaped the phrases was ideal. But the tone just wasn’t there, especially in the high notes, which hardly sounded at all.
The orchestra too had there problems. They suffered more than the choir in the dire Albert Hall acoustic. It is perhaps the ultimate indictment of this venue that even the Tuba Miram, one of the loudest passages in the whole repertoire, was swallowed up by the cavernous space. The orchestra had some tactics to deal with the sound problems. Everything they played, even the quieter music, was presented in a declamatory, no nonsense style. So not much subtlety here, but what else can you do?
The four brass bands were arranged at the corners of the orchestra, just as the score stipulates. This worked well, apart from the fact that the tiered stage gave the two bands and the back far more prominence than those at the front. Instrumentation-wise, there were no ophicleides, but there were cornets. The choice of trombones was good: following 19th century French custom, all the trombones were Bb tenors, giving a satisfying edge to all those long pedals.
The orchestral playing was often poorly coordinated. This may have been because of the emphatic attack the players were forced to give each entry, highlighting ensemble problems that may otherwise have escaped attention. This was a particular problem for the woodwind. On the other hand, the double basses had a great evening, and found a way to project through the texture against all the odds. The percussion also did very well. They seemed to occupy about half the stage, but despite their numbers their ensemble and balance was close to ideal.
A variable but enjoyable Berlioz Requiem then, from an unusually enlarged BBC NOW. Thierry Fischer is about to leave the orchestra, and this is the last Prom that he will conduct as their Musical Director. Against the odds, he managed to give a performance that was a real interpretation, and that, for the most part, held together without major problems. The choir though, were the real stars, and although the orchestral playing was serviceable at best, the performance was wholly redeemed by the high standard of ensemble singing.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What's wrong with public schools advertising in classical concert programmes?

Classical music has a big problem: its image is seriously at odds with its identity. Most people involved agree that classical music exists for all, and that everybody is equally capable, or at least entitled, to appreciate it. Yet the image classical music cultivates suggests the exact opposite. From the ethnic make-up of London orchestras to the dress code at Glyndebourne, a clear message is projected, that this is music for white affluent people, whose monopoly the rest of us are impinging just by our presence.
Last month, Andrew Mellor wrote a piece for the New Statesman arguing this point, albeit from a different angle. In his view, the problem boils down to the snobbery of classical audiences. From the huge number of responses to the post, it is clear that most disagree with this judgement, and it certainly doesn't square with my own experiences as a concert-goer. But Mellor supports his argument with some examples of the institutionalised snobbery that contributes to this attitude, and some of these are more difficult to dismiss.
'...if you turn up and buy a programme' at the Proms, Mellor writes, ' – which will cost marginally less than a £5 arena ticket – you’ll find it stuffed full with adverts for private schools. The subtext is as clear as it is nonsensical: we’ve all got money, that’s why we like this sort of music.'
This, like almost every other point in Mellor's article, has been contested. The seemingly watertight response was that public schools provide music scholarships, and so classical concert programmes are a natural place for them to advertise.
But this leads to further questions. Scholarships to otherwise fee-paying schools are offered, at least in part, to protect the charitable status of those institutions. And proficiency on a musical instrument in a classical context is deemed an appropriate criteria for selecting those upon whom the resulting privilege will be bestowed. But why only musical proficiency in a classical context? Why don't public schools also support projects like the BRIT School to produce a new generation of Amy Winehouses, or Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to train the next Beatles? Then they could advertise at rock gigs and nightclubs, significantly reducing the implied social engineering of both the art form and the education system.
Instrumental scholarships allow public schools to maintain a paradox, in which the social background of pupils is deemed irrelevant, while the values the school instils are distinctly aristocratic. Classical music lays itself open to this appropriation because its identity rests on a similar paradox, one that its advocates are unwilling to address.
Those of us who love classical music tend to ascribe values to it that we don't extend to other genres. We see it as a power for good, both for the individual and for society. How and why it has this status is a question usually ignored. Kant's conception of the sublime absolves even the most rational of us of the obligation to examine that core belief in depth.
Why aren't other musical genres considered sublime? Why do so many parents cling to the concept of a 'Mozart Effect', long after the science has been discredited? And why, most crucially, is classical music considered such an elevated art form that it qualifies for almost the entire state funding to reach the musical world?
That last point suggests a defensive attitude to these questions is appropriate. But in these straitened times, financial imperatives are beginning to force an examination of accepted truths. Improvised music is providing an interesting fault line here. The Norwegian Ensemble Supersilent has been touring the UK recently, and Norman Lebrecht has taken issue with their Arts Council funding on the grounds that they don't rehearse. That seems like an arbitrary complaint in some ways, and it has certainly roused the ire of improvised music's champions, most notably Philip Clark. But it does at least suggest one criteria that we might look for when assessing music's qualification to be part of the funded/classical/sublime nexus. However, the fact that no agreement was reached, even on this small criterion, demonstrates just how deep the problem is.
As a classical fan myself, I am willing to ascribe classical music values that I'm unlikely to extend to other forms of music. But that's not the problem, the problem is the wilful disinterest (and I'm sure I am as guilty as any here) in pinning down what those values are. Even our continued use of the term 'classical music' demonstrates the problem. The word 'classical' is wholly inappropriate to the living reality of the classical music world. But the myth that the music propagates values that go back to the Graeco-Roman tradition is in everybody's interests (not least the public schools'). Internet chat rooms often debate the possibility of an alternative term. They always fail, not just because of the lack of other viable options, but because of the complex of values that the term 'classical' ascribes to the music, and upon which it depends, whether it lives up to them or not.
As long as we maintain vague notions about classical music as a virtuous and bettering art form, it is always going to be seen as a tool for social mobility too. That's where the perceived snobbishness of classical audiences stems from: everyone else here is going up in the world as a result of listening to this music, so you better be too. It is also the cause of classical music's curiously aristocratic image, which bares no relation to the social make-up of either the audience or the participants. Classical music isn't intrinsically exclusive, but it relies on the myth that it is as a key aspect of its identity. There aren't any easy solutions to this one, but getting those damned public school adverts out of concert programmes would be a great start.