Monday, 28 April 2014

Mahler 7, LSO, Gatti, Barbican 27 April 2014

Mahler: Symphony No. 7
London Symphony Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (cond).
Barbican, London, 27 April 2014

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony doesn’t conduct itself. It needs leadership from an interpreter with a clear vision for the piece, and with the confidence to sideline many aspects of the music in order to highlight others for the sake of coherency and form. Many conductors, even Mahler specialists, balk at the challenge (most famously Bruno Walter, who only conducted it once), but Daniele Gatti is clearly not intimidated. His reading this evening was a real interpretation: distinctive, focussed, and with clear musical ideas projected through Mahler’s score. At times, it seemed that those ideas where not actually native to the music, and that the work was being manipulated to fit external thoughts, but that is always the price for a successful interpretation of this intractable and often self contradictory score.
Gatti’s grand plan was to treat the five movement arch structure as a more straightforward three movement ternary plan. The outer movements carried the weight of the argument, and both were taken to extremes of drama and intensity. To contrast them, the inner three were conflated to form an extended interlude. So significant pauses were observed between the first and second movements, and between the fourth and fifth, but movements two to four were played virtually attacca. And the scherzo third movement was presented as playful and delicate, so as to bring it in line with the Nachtmusik atmosphere of its neighbours.
Most unusually of all, Gatti took everything very slowly, never labouring the music, but making sure that all of the ideas were given due weight and prominence. One of the biggest problems for conductors approaching this work is to reconcile the overall structure with the huge quantity of often eccentric detail. Gatti managed to square that circle with his slow tempos, which united every passage in the work while also giving him the space to focus on all those tiny orchestral interjections that make this work so unique.
The first movement was the most successful. Gatti structured the movement around the three or four long build-ups to its main climaxes. These were performed with astonishing intensity, especially the one at the very end. But that atmosphere was maintained throughout the movement, even in the quieter sections where he also turned his attentions to all the tiny solos from unexpected corners of the orchestra. The London Symphony played magnificently for him, but his approach really put them to the test. The brass in particular where required to play louder and slower than most conductors would expect of them in this work.
One interesting addition to the brass section was Peter Moore on first trombone. This is his first appearance with the LSO since it was announced, or rather leaked on Twitter, at the weekend that he has been appointed co-principal. Presumably that means he will be sharing the chair with Dudley Bright, who this evening played the tenor tuba solo. Bright had a few problems at the very beginning and was insecure in the top register, although this again could be due to the fact that Gatti wanted this solo slower and louder than usual. But the later interjections, in the middle register, were more successful. The trombone section sounded great under Moore, as did the trumpets under the similarly youthful Philip Cobb (Moore is 18, Cobb only in his mid 20s). With these two young players leading the trumpets and trombones, the chances are we will be seeing a new golden age of brass playing at the LSO – not that the section has been deficient in recent years.
Gatti took a playful approach to the inner movements, still slow, but with plenty of tempo variance as well. Playing down the drama of the scherzo was a gamble, but it paid off. This was the one movement that Gatti conducted at a tempo approaching the norm, still on the slow side, but not as wilfully so as elsewhere. But again, the details were what made this special, all those fleeting orchestral colours, from the percussion, or the bottom end of the woodwinds. But the music was also effectively punctuated with satisfyingly dark bass sounds, particularly from the bottom strings of the harps, an effect that Gatti rightly made a point of bringing out.
The finale was the least successful movement. Again, Gatti’s approach was to take the music slow, make the tuttis imperious, and gradually build up in intensity to the key climactic points. But Mahler has more subtle ideas in mind here. He will often break off midway through a long crescendo, and suddenly take you into an eerily calm pastoral world for a few bars before returning to the fray. Those devices didn’t have a place in Gatti’s conception, and so were effectively ignored. Five movements on, Mahler has taken us on a journey from the soundworld of the first movement, and the finale is in a different place, so Gatti’s efforts to bring us back to where we began put his interpretation at odds with the now transformed character of the music.
Even so, his approach rewards more than it taxes in every movement, including the finale. And whatever differences of trajectory we might feel between the work and the interpretation, the slow tempos and focus on detail throughout always shine new light on this music. Overall, the performance was a success because he based his reading on a minute attention to detail. With a lesser orchestra, that could have been dangerous, but with the LSO, here on fine form, all those details were there, clear and precise, exactly what Gatti required to piece together his bigger picture.  

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is avialible to listen on demand until Sunday 4 May 2014 at:  

Monday, 21 April 2014

Time to End the Proms Embargo?

In three days time, the 2014 Proms programme will be announced, and the nation’s cultural commentators will all try to sound surprised. The identity of the headline performers is the biggest open secret in classical music, and you don’t have to be at the BBC to have heard the names going round for months. Most festivals and concert seasons announce their programmes up to a year in advance, but the BBC likes to pretend that nobody knows about the Proms until ten weeks before they begin.
The Proms rightly prides itself as the greatest classical music festival in the world, but it is plagued with silly traditions, and none are as silly as this – apart possibly from the Last Night. And like the Last Night, it is a distinctively British preoccupation that sits uneasily with the international profile of the festival itself. Musicians from British orchestras tend to maintain the spirit of the embargo, talking about Proms gigs in at least slightly coded terms. Players in foreign orchestras, though, don’t bother, and are usually happy to give you chapter and verse. Even the websites of many foreign orchestras make the information plain, telling you the dates and times of the London engagements in their summer tour, just leaving off the venue, presumably to satisfy contract conditions with the BBC.
The sheer impracticality of the embargo is what makes it such a farce. Publicity for yearlong composer anniversaries will carry detailed information about every event from January until December, apart from an ambiguously worded reference half way down the list to a “major London summer music festival”. No doubt the organisers of such anniversary celebrations are grateful for the exposure in the Proms, but the complications it causes to their publicity cycle can’t endear the system.
Then there is the curious sideshow of commentators feigning ignorance. Here is Petroc Trelawny, writing two days before the Proms launch in 2010 and claiming to know only two percent of the programme. That’s an unlikely scenario, and the embargo seems all the more fragile when it relies on such disingenuous pronouncements.
I’ll concede that I am in the industry, but I’m not in the know. There isn’t any other festival or season that fails quite as badly to keep its programming under wraps. Official season announcements by the Southbank Centre or the Barbican, say, are always news to me: a genuine surprise rather than a manufactured one.
Roger Wright, like every Proms controller before him, has charted a course between tradition and innovation, subtly reinventing the festival every year, but without seriously disrupting any of the traditions it clings to. Now he is moving on to Aldeburgh, leaving these challenges to his successor (who, funnily enough, has yet to be named). I doubt that however it is will be willing to tackle issues like the hegemony of season ticket holders in the arena, or the abysmal acoustic of the Albert Hall, but perhaps the programme embargo could be one issue for their to-do list. There is nothing wrong with keeping this information secret and then making it public with pomp and fanfare – but why not do it in November rather than April?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Concertgebouw Jansons Vogt Barbican 5 April 2014

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Lars Vogt (piano), Mariss Jansons (conductor), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Barbican, London, 5.4.14

The Concertgebouw Orchestra ended their three concert residency at the Barbican with some luxurious Beethoven followed by some propulsive Bruckner. Mariss Jansons, as ever, gave distinctive readings, energetic and carefully shaped, with every detail of the scores put to the service of the bigger picture. That worked better in the Beethoven than the Bruckner, and although the concerto is very much the slighter work, it offered the greater enjoyment and interest this evening.
Lars Vogt is the ideal pianist for the Concertgebouw. Like the orchestra, his Classical and Romantic repertoire interpretations are all about natural, unaffected expression underpinned by a fluent and undemonstrative virtuosity. As the orchestra began the exposition, the players sounded strangely relaxed. There was a laid-back feeling about the sound production and phrasing. One consequence was poor ensemble, especially in the violins, but the compensation was an unhurried and satisfyingly warm orchestral tone. In fact, the Concertgebouw sound is more sophisticated and rich than first impressions suggest. There is a gritty, sinewy undertone to the string textures that complements the general roundness of tone, adding focus and bite when required.
Similarly, Vogt’s playing is characterised by a generally lyrical and mellow legato, but regularly punctuated by heavily accented notes or phrases. He has a muscular and definite touch; he offers plenty of nuance while always avoiding ambiguity. Combined with the rich, Romantic Concertgebouw sound, the result was old-fashioned Beethoven, unencumbered by even the vaguest notion of period performance practice: this is how the Concertgebouw has performed Beethoven since the 19th century, so why change now?
The Bruckner, by contrast, was very different even from the most recent performances the orchestra has given of his symphonies in the UK. Bernard Haitink is the most recent conductor to take up the Concertgebouw’s Bruckner traditions and perpetuate them without subjecting them to any radical reinterpretations. Mariss Jansons, though, is a different kind of conductor. His readings of the great Romantic symphonies, from Schumann to Shostakovich, have always been about focus and direction, lyrical yes, but with all the music’s expressive apparatus put to the service of structural and dramatic aims. That’s what he did with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony this evening, and most of it didn’t work at all.
There was little sense of mystery in the introduction, and when the main theme entered, it was fast, heavily accented and lacking in any sense of grandeur. Jansons read the symphony as if it were Brahms, subjugating its diverse musical discourse into a clearly rational, unambiguous form. So, when at the end of the first movement, the heavens open and a radiant chorale is played on the violins in their highest register, it didn’t tear through the earthly discourse as a divine intervention, but merely continued the progress towards the following climax. Tempos in the Scherzo were erratic, to say the least, very fast in the pizzicato at the start, then slowed right down for the bass entry, then suddenly brought back up to tempo when the violins re-entered. Why? I’ve no idea, but it completely destroyed the sense of unstoppable momentum that this passage requires. Even more surprisingly, Jansons pushed the tempos in the Adagio just as hard as he had in the first movement. He is clearly very interested in the ways that tiny melodic cells can link the longer phrases together. So, for example, he will bring out just a three or four note interjection from the woodwinds, and what ought to be a transitional figure or answering phrase suddenly becomes primary thematic material. Every interjection from the Wagner tuba was brought right to the front of the texture, which only went to highlight their suspect tuning. And the climaxes, when he got to each of them, were so exaggerated that the rich colours of the orchestra all but broke up.
All of which was a great shame, especially since under Van Beinum, Jochum, Haitink, even Harnoncourt, the Concertgebouw has shown itself to be one of the truly great Bruckner orchestras. Jansons is clearly a great conductor too, but his strengths lie elsewhere, and this evening the stars only really came into alignment for the first half.