Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians' pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren't so lucky. I didn't hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
BBC Promenade Concerts
Three-star chef. Life may not be a box of chocolates, but the Berlin Philharmonic is, and during their first visit to Royal Albert Hall this Proms season, Sir Simon Rattle made gestures that were like plucking nougatine from a dazzling array of sweets. He beams as he conducts, looking seraphic in a nimbus of snow white hair, and why not? At his disposal is an instrument of unparalleled virtuosity, and he sometimes puts his hands down at his side, gazing in rapt appreciation. If his interpretation should falter, the orchestra will carry the music along as if on a flying carpet. I can imagine someone tiring of London without tiring of life. No one who loves music could tire of the Berliners.
Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO's music director, Edward Gardner. I'm getting the bare bones out of the way because it's hard to revisit Britten's seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.
First off, a confession. Such, such are the joys of London transport that I arrived too late for the start of the Debussy, and was therefore not admitted till after the Prélude had finished. I have heard tell that there is a species of journalist that in this situation would confer with its fellow hacks and evaluate the consensus on the missed performance, before compiling a description along these party lines as though it were its own opinion. Fortunately, I am not that kind of journalist and would therefore not have the effrontery to hoodwink my innocent readers in this way. (Those of a political disposition have my full permission to consider the preceding sentences trenchant topical satire rather than pointless filler.) At least I can confirm that wherever the sound dissipates to in the Albert Hall's less-than-princely acoustic, it is not through its double set of side doors off the auditorium, which yielded up nary a note in the five minutes-plus I was stood outside awaiting entry.
Check the odometer. The Proms deserve a jolly rev up when they start, and after 117 summer seasons, it was a fresh young pianist, Benjamin Grosvenor, who provided it. At nineteen, he came out in a casual shirt looking like a college freshman who might be spending his vacation as a pizza delivery boy or valet parking attendant. Those attendants are notorious for taking Porsches and Jags for a quick spin, returning them with hot wheels. Grosvenor had his chances with Liszt's Piano Concerto no. 2, but he returned it respectfully to its owner. He displayed glittering fingers and a beguiling soft touch at the beginning, but this work is faux art, setting a mood simply to tease the audience before the fireworks display.
Master of all trades. Stephen Sondheim’s career has been a slippery alloy of brilliance and spite. The brilliance is entirely his; the spite seeps from Broadway‘s “vultures, hangers on, and harbingers of bad news.” The quote is from a BBC interview this spring, indicating that at 80, Sondheim either feels the old barbs or is reconciled to being the perpetual outsider. His melodies can be as sweet as cream toffee, but you have to walk over broken glass to get to them. Addicted to puzzles and word games, he inserts them liberally into his lyrics, which are never for the dull witted. Before him, the American musical was a national pastime. Show tunes made the top 40, and everyone knew the numbers from Oklahoma. (In Sondheim, the corn is as high as a salamander‘s eye.) Even Kurt Weill cottoned that he had to transform the scabrous ironies of his Berlin work into something anodyne and folksy once he crossed the Atlantic. Sondheim alone was willing to write with a razor and strop. The way that critics reviled him, you’d think he filched the champagne from Die Fledermaus and substituted cyanide.
Punchy, zingy, raspy, and rushed. By far the most erratic concert of the summer season was delivered at last night's Prom where Paavo Jarvi brought his small band of Bremen town musicians (that is, the well-regarded Deutsche Kammer-Philharmonie Bremen). When Haydn made his second celebrated visit to London in 1794, he employed an orchestra of up to eighty musicians playing before crowds of perhaps a thousand. So it's pure affectation to ask forty musicians to play two of Beethoven's most powerful works, the Violin Concerto and Symphony no. 5, in the yawning spaces of Albert Hall, which seats over six thousand. In the name of period style we were treated last night to three double basses, all but unheard beyond the first few rows. They might as well have sawed the air.
Wunderkindfest. Unless you are a stubborn opinionator, performances can confuse you at times. I was flummoxed last night at the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, in a concert I was expecting to enjoy, though not to the utmost. The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique wore out its welcome many years ago, and only a brilliant performance can redeem it for me. That Dudamel did not deliver. Sparkling as he is in the bright media limelight, the skyrocketing young Venezuelan has to have the goods, too. In this case, his reading was flat, disjointed, and plodding, with a drawn-out Scene aux champs that lasted long enough for Madame Defarge to knit a quilt. The guillotine movement that followed was coarse and blatty, which is how the whole reading went, either in slow mo with exaggerated emphases or sped up recklessly. Dudamel’s inability to sustain tension in soft passages, one of the most blatant failings in a bad conductor, shocked me.