Prom 15, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra review *****

Prom 15 – Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) 

Royal Albert Hall, 30th July 2019

  • Beethoven – Symphony No 2
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 5 

It always surprises just how few Proms concerts tick all the boxes for the Tourist. I can usually only manage 4 or 5 in the season. Partly this reflects holiday and other clashes, and this year I was a few hours late out of the block when booking opened, (so missing the Voces8 and English Concert gigs at Cadogan Hall and the first Vienna Phil Beethoven/Bruckner with Haitink conducting), but mostly it stems from the preponderance of Romantic repertoire and the relative absence of Early/Baroque/Classical in the programming. If you like the likes of Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner, Dvorak, Strauss and Sibelius you were, as usual, in your element this year. If this is not your cup of tea a more judicious approach is called for. Mind you. This suits me in a way as, (whisper it), the dear old Albert Hall isn’t my favourite gaff even if the sound is never quite as bad as you might fear up in the Raising Circle where the Tourist perches.

So for me this concert was the one stand-out in the season. Beethoven 2, Shostakovich’s 10th, with the BRSO, under the baton of Mariss Jansons, which runs close to being the best orchestra in the world right now. Hold up chum I hear you say. Mariss Jansons? Shos 10? That’s not what it says above. Well no. Mr Jansons was ordered to take time off over the summer by his docs though it looks like he will be back in the saddle in Munich for the new season, (and maybe he will keep his mouth shut about female representation in music in future). Fortunately for Prommers and those at the Salzburg festival Yannick Nezet-Seguin was able to step in at short notice and his facility with Shostakovich was sufficient to see the 5th replaced the 10th. Which was no great disappointment.

Especially in an interpretation as powerful as this. Now the Tourist has had to wait a few years to witness the conducting, (or indeed pianistic), prowess of French-Canadian YN-S. Never heard the Rotterdam Phil when he was head honcho and am not about to jet over to the Met in NYC or Philadelphia to hear his current troupes. Also never heard the Chamber Orchestra of Europe where he guest conducts and always missed him a few years ago when he still did the same for the LPO. And judging by his discography there aren’t too many orchestral works where our paths might cross. But Shostakovich is clearly one, and, based on this Beethoven 2, it is also clear to me that I need to find a way to hear him lead a Mozart opera.

I am not smart enough to understand why certain conductors and orchestras lift music to another level. But I think I know when I hear it. The BRSO under MJ massively persuaded me with a Prokofiev 5 at the Barbican a couple of years ago. Their playing is powerful, accurate and precise. This was clear in the leisurely reading of the Beethoven Second. Easy on the vibrato, HIP style, but still with a foot firmly planted in the Romantic, focussed on the individual building blocks of the symphony though not utterly convincing on the whole. No 2 can be, shall we say, forgettable compared to what can after, but, in the right hands, is still a work of genius, especially the opening and closing movements.

It took a little time for LvB to bring it to together, interrupted by commissions and by encroaching deafness, and was largely written at Heiligenstadt, but, as is often remarked, you wouldn’t know about LvB’s personal travails from listening to this. The first movement Adagio-Allegro can’t match the Eroica in scale but it does signpost LvB’s future direction of travel. The Allegro wanders off to B flat before wending its way back to the D major home key and the rising scale of the allegro couldn’t be simpler but sets the tone for the surprisingly jolly vibe which pervades the work. The Larghetto, also in sonata form similarly doesn’t spend too long in the darkness, though its woodwind burbling does slightly overstay its welcome, and the following Scherzo and Trio movement marks the first use of the “joke” in a major symphony. The Allegro finale starts off like a classic LvB rondo but then develops into something far more musically complex and is dominated by rapid string passages. Immediately appealing, but satisfyingly clever, like all the symphonies which were to follow.

So a solid start. But it was the Shostakovich which really showed what this band and conductor can do. Given his opera jobs I suspect it may have been a little while since YN-S last tackled the Fifth but it is a work he knows well. And the BRSO certainly does. The complete Shostakovich cycle recording on EMI conducted by MJ may not, individually be best in class, but the 2, 3, 4, 12, 13, 14 versions on this set made with BRSO come close, and, at 20 quid, the cycle is a steal. I confess I prefer Haitink overall when it comes to DSCH, but also have versions of some of the symphonies from Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture SO and Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool PO (whose complete set is also a bargain). And I would snap up a set of Kondrashin recordings should this ever return based on what the experts say.

The point is that whilst super smooth Shostakovich should be avoided, the extreme of the hardcore Russian approach does take a bit of getting used to. Extremes of anger, aggression, pain and pathos, are what these works are all about, and it is right that interpretations test the patience of the listener, whether it be in the bleak never ending slow movements, the sardonic scherzos or the melodramatic, ambiguous, opening and closing movements.. Whatever you think about what DSCH was actually trying to say in his music it definitely needs an edge, even if you end up concluding that it is sub-Mahlerian, film-music bombast as many have done. I love it but it is undeniably music of edge, effect, emotion and image, mixing high and low brow, light years away from the musical maths of a Bach or Stravinsky.

What it does need to convince however is perfect playing. Forgive the thoughts of this musical dummy but f you have a lot of instruments playing the same thing, or single instruments soloing over a sparse backdrop, then you need the players to be exact. DSCH does not forgive imprecision. The BRSO, perhaps more than any other outfit, move as one. Which means that all the “effects”, the fear, brutality, solace, the bright lights, the shadows, were perfectly executed. DSCH symphonies all, at least from 5 to 13 (1,2,3 are the avant garde formal experiments, 14 and 15 defiantly personal), conjure up images of war and terror and the capacity of humankind to overcome even if, like the Fifth, they came before WWII. But to pull together the passages in the movements to simulate the march of history, and then to lay on top the ironic detachment that, I think, DSCH sought, the last movement of No 5 being archetypical, requires conducting and playing of real skill. That’s what we got here. The sheen was there, no doubt, as were the debts to Mahler and Stravinsky in the phrasing, but this was also properly aggressive and emotional when it needed to be.

The Fifth is, I would assume, the most oft-performed of DSCH’s symphonies meaning the dangers of over-familiarity loom even larger. How to capture the thrill and surprise of the music without getting lazy? How to balance the ostensible formal conservatism of the four movements in DSCH’s “Soviet artist’s response to justified criticism” with the probing, questioning and cynicism which seems, even if this is wishful thinking on our part, to lie beneath? YN-S and the BRSO did not avoid echoing the folk tunes, festive dances and grandiose anthems that punctuate the work to meet Soviet requirements nor did they try too hard to subvert the “uplifting” coda to the finale as it turns from D minor to major. Nor did they over-reach in the still, hovering episodes of the opening movement which punctuate the aggressive tutti climaxes, nor in the heart-rending third movement Largo chant, (with some ear-strainingly quiet pianissimos), nor in the perverted waltz of the Allegretto. They just let it speak for itself. Whether as classic symphonic journey, as testament to the struggle of the Soviet people to escape oppression or as satirical indictment of the dread inflicted by Stalin and his regime. Or just as music which, whilst maybe too obvious and precipitate, immediately connects. As was very clear from the eruption of applause when finally the timpani and bass drum sounded out their last, immense, booms.

A bit of Mussorgsky for an encore. Dawn on the Moscow River from Kovanshchina. Arranged by guess who. Shostakovich.

Like I said. There are surprisingly few Proms that do it for me. But, just like last year and the BPO’s Beethoven 7 under Kirill Petrenko, I reckon I heard the pick of the season. (BTW sounds like Mr Petrenko means business kicking off the BPO season with what sounded like a belting Choral Symphony and serving up a diet of, unsurprisingly, Beethoven and Mahler in the first half of next year. I get the BPO will be glad to see the back of Rattle’s excursions into Rameau and Bernstein. Anyway the Tourist feels a trip to Berlin coming on).

My favourite classical concerts of 2017

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Right I know it is a bit late in the day but I wanted to make a list of the concerts I enjoyed most from last year. So everything that got a 5* review based on my entirely subjective criteria is ordered below. Top is Sir Simon and the LSO with their Stravinsky ballets. Like it was going to be anything else.

Anyway no preamble. No waffle. Barely any punctuation. Part record, part boast. Comments welcome.

  • LSO, Simon Rattle – Stravinsky, The Firebird (original ballet), Petrushka (1947 version), The Rite of Spring – Barbican Hall – 24th September
  • Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals – Reich Tehillim, Drumming – Royal Festival Hall – 5th May
  • Isabelle Faust, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck – JS Bach Suite No 2 in A Minor BWV 1067a, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Violin Concerto in A Minor BWV 1041, Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, CPE Bach String Symphony in B Minor W 182/5 – Wigmore Hall – 29th June
  • Jack Quartet – Iannis Xenakis, Ergma for string quartet, Embellie for solo viola, Mikka ‘S’ for solo violin, Kottos for solo cello, Hunem-Iduhey for violin and cello, ST/4 –1, 080262 for string quartet – Wigmore Hall – 25th February
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Gerald Barry Chevaux de Frise, Beethoven Symphony No 3 in E Flat Major Eroica – Barbican Hall – 6th June 2017
  • Nederlands Kamerkoor,Peter Dijkstra – Sacred and Profane – Britten Hymn to St Cecilia, Gabriel Jackson Ave Regina caelorum, Berio Cries of London, Lars Johan Werle Orpheus, Canzone 126 di Francesca Petraraca, Britten Sacred and Profane – Cadogan Hall – 8th March
  • Tim Gill cello, Fali Pavri piano, Sound Intermedia – Webern 3 kleine Stücke, Op. 11, Messiaen ‘Louange à l’Éternite du Jesus Christ’ (‘Praise to the eternity of Jesus’) from Quartet for the End of Time, Henze Serenade for solo cello, Arvo Pärt Fratres, Xenakis Kottos for solo cello, Jonathan Harvey Ricercare una melodia for solo cello and electronics, Thomas Ades ‘L’eaux’ from Lieux retrouvés, Anna Clyne Paint Box for cello and tape, Harrison Birtwistle Wie Eine Fuga from Bogenstrich – Kings Place – 6th May
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Mark Stone – Gerald Barry Beethoven, Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 – Barbican Hall – 2nd June
  • Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth – Monteverdi Vespers 1610 – Barbican Hall – 23rd June
  • Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Murray Perahia – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Piano Concertos No 2 in B flat major and No 4 in G major – Barbican – 20th February
  • London Sinfonietta and students, Lucy Shaufer, Kings Place Choir – Luciano Berio, Lepi Yuro, E si fussi pisci, Duetti: Aldo, Naturale, Duetti: Various, Divertimento, Chamber Music, Sequenza II harp, Autre fois, Lied clarinet, Air, Berceuse for Gyorgy Kurtag, Sequenza I flute, Musica Leggera, O King – Kings Place – 4th November
  • Maurizio Pollini – Schoenberg 3 Pieces for piano, Op.11, 6 Little pieces for piano, Op.19, Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique), Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78 (à Thérèse), Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata) – RFH – 14th March
  • Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades, Gerald Barry – Beethoven Septet Op 20, Piano Trio Op 70/2. Gerald Barry Five Chorales from the Intelligence Park – Milton Court Concert Hall – 30th May
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman – Beethoven Piano Concerto No 4, Prokofiev Symphony No 5 – Barbican Hall – 24th November
  • Britten Sinfonia, Helen Grime – Purcell Fantasia upon one note, Oliver Knussen, George Benjamin, Colin Matthew, A Purcell Garland, Helen Grime Into the Faded Air, A Cold Spring, Knussen Cantata, Ades Court Studies from The Tempest, Britten Sinfonietta, Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks – Milton Court Hall – 20th September

 

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review *****

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Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Yefim Bronfman (piano)

Barbican Hall, 24th November 2017

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4
  • Prokofiev – Symphony No 5

Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, Chicago Symphony. These are the orchestras usually held up as the world’s best. The smart money though also rates the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I know that Mr Jansons has a way with Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich through recordings, but this was the first time I had ever seen him, or his principal orchestra, perform. That just shows what a berk I am, (I have discounted previous visits thanks to repertoire), though I suppose you could say this means I have much to look forward to. Anyway I was quite excited.

The thing is I still don’t know if I really like Prokofiev’s music. Sometimes I am really swept along by the wealth of ideas and colours. Sometimes I am baffled. A work in progress if you will. With the Beethoven however there was enough from the programme to commit. I am so glad I did. I don’t think I have ever heard a conductor who exerts so much control over the dynamics of an orchestra. Mr Jansons seems to have worked out every single detail and every one of the orchestra members knew what to do and when to do it. The lushiest of lush strings, the silkiest of silky woodwind,  the punchiest of punch brass and the most precise of precision percussion.

A bit too perfect. Maybe. I wouldn’t want to hear this sort of performance every day of the week but it worked for me in the Prokofiev. This was SP’s return to the symphonic form after a 15 year hiatus, and the first after his return to the Soviet Union. You could read it like a “celebration” of the Red Army’s victories over the German army, (it premiered in 1944), but it would seem to make as much sense as reading Shostakovich’s symphonies in the same way. It seems to me that it defies any programmatic intent. The first movement opens with a woodwind theme that gets bashed up by brass and percussion, followed by some string development and then a dissonant halt before the B flat major resolution. If this is an epic tale of overcoming the enemy it is a funny way of showing it. The scherzo which follows, with a tune SP nicked from his own Romeo and Juliet, (and which is the theme tune for a telly programme I can’t identify which irks me immensely), is one of those amazing ideas which SP seems to conjure up at will and which defines the word sardonic. Here though he plays with it, rather than discarding it too early and moving on, which is what normally annoys me. It ends with a trademark dissonance. The strings of the BRSO were bonkers fast by the end but still perfectly regimented. The Adagio kicks off with a proper stringy heart tugger then a funeral march before the finale opens with a gallop that gets pulled apart by percussion until a final, odd maybe-heroic conclusion.

It always seems to me that SP never seemed entirely comfortable with what he created and felt compelled to shake ideas back up as soon as they were realised. This is what makes it a bit too bitty for me. Yet in this performance I could hear a line through the movements and all that ADHD nervous intensity was calmed and channelled.

Same in the Beethoven, but because I know and get this, all was pleasure. Yefim Bronfman has a delicate touch for a big fella (like me), and pulled it out for the showy bits, but this was all about the orchestra which was so on the ball in this that it felt like it only lasted 5 minutes. I guess all that sitting around waiting for the soloist in the opening movement after his first tinkle meant the game was over before it started but this was definitely one of those performances where the diva did what they were told, even when they were in the box seat. A good thing. Mind you Mr Bronfman got plenty of opportunity to show his skills in his encore of Schumann’s pretty, if pointless, Arabeske.

The second movement Andante is one of my favourite Beethoven moments with the meek piano weaving its ethereal tune around the dramatic string interjection. And the final movement Rondo is, in turn, one of my favourite Beethoven fist pumpers, which surrounds an enchanting central diversion. Imagine hearing that for the first time. A joy.

Just like my first time with this orchestra. Mr Jansons, who works the podium energetically despite being near 75 and having a pacemaker, exudes enthusiasm and, I’ll warrant, pride in his achievement with this band. After the concert he was presented with a Gold Medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Only around 100 or so of these have been bestowed since inception in 1871, and only 1 or 2 are given out each year (mind you they were pretty generous in the first year). He joins the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, who presented it to him, and, in terms of living conductors, Dutoit, Pappano, Barenboim, Rattle, and the master IMHO, Haitink. Like I said, the smart money rates him.