My highlights of the 2010 Proms so far…
Being away from the homeland, it’s the first year in a long time that I am missing the Proms. In theory it’s all available on iPlayer (albeit at lower bit rate for international listeners), though there do seem to have been rather a lot technical hitches which have limited my listening. Of the several Proms I’ve managed to hear so far, three really stood out – predictably they are somewhat Germanic and (specifically) Beethoven-heavy, but, well, that’s my taste and what do I know? I’d urge you to seek them out on the iPlayer before they disappear though (and they aren’t strictly subject to the usual seven-day rule because many of them are repeated more than once, effectively ‘renewing’ the listen again period).
Wagner – Prelude from Lohengrin
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends
R. Strauss – An Alpine Symphony
West Germany Radio Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov
Viviane Hagner (Violin)
This was a really solid programme, played beautifully by the WDR Symphony Orchestra. The Wagner and the Strauss were – in their own ways – tremendous. The former is crisp, spring-like and somehow deciduous, the latter expansive, bold and evergreen. Viviane Hagner was great, giving a decidedly textual performance of the Mendelssohn which was nonetheless soaring and emotive. The opening of the third movement never fails to lift me, and Hagner’s sweeping delivery was majestic – in the right hands, it is one of the purest expressions of joy that I have ever come across: just look at Itzhak Perlman’s face when he is playing it here. Contrary to some reviewers – and this one particularly – I enjoyed the Schuller premiere. It followed a well-trodden path for contemporary classical music but was, at times, disturbing and exciting. While it was (faint praise warning) something of a ‘mood piece’, it did capture a mood very well.
Beethoven – ‘Egmont’ Overture
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.1 in C major
Beethoven – The Creatures [or Creations] of Prometheus – Overture
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G major
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek
Paul Lewis (Piano)
The BBC Symphony Orchestra did sterling work backing Paul Lewis in the First and Fourth Piano Concertos (the Second, Third and Fifth will follow later in the season – in fact I just checked and one was tonight, which I will listen to tomorrow). I wasn’t blown away by the First, but like the First Symphony it is, in my view, hamstrung by its deference to Mozart. Both overtures were smartly played, and though there were a couple of awkward mis-steps during the ‘Egmont’, its conclusion was very powerful. The Fourth Concerto was the highlight for me – a much more adventurous and ambitious piece which Lewis delivered with both technical and stylistic flourish. As an aside, this piece was premiered in what must surely have been one of the most culturally significant occasions in human history*, also featuring debuts for the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and Beethoven’s last appearance as a concerto soloist (22nd December 1808).
Beethoven – Symphony No.1 in C major
Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie / Paavo Järvi
Hilary Hahn (Violin)
The second Beethoven Night was equal to the first, I felt; despite the relative weakness of the First Symphony, it was never less than diverting and does feature some playful surprises which were handled nicely by conductor Paavo Järvi. Hilary Hahn was as deft as ever, lending the Violin Concerto the bite it sometimes lacks, though never undermining its lyricism and grace. The Fifth was taken at a gallop, but it worked very well – some of the (often overdone) blood and thunder was toned down and this re-imagining was very successful. While I think Tim Ashley is broadly correct, I think he overlooks the exuberance and gravity of the finale of the Fifth, which no amount of light-batoned tinkering could dispel.
Of the others, the first half of Prom 2 (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) was great but I need to go back and finish it (if I can) – Bryn Terfel was sounding tremendous. I was disappointed to miss Prom 7 (Chopin Nocturnes) and would appreciate any views on how that was. Prom 10 (the Doctor Who Prom, also cheekily repeated as Prom 11 it seems) was great fun, though a bit light on actual music – both the incidental works (which apparently were accompanied by big screen clips and some live action) and the intervening classical pieces were played wonderfully though. If nothing else, it was a great demonstration of how to integrate a drum kit in an orchestra (a skill which sometimes spectacularly deserts screen music creators). I couldn’t face Prom 3‘s Simon Boccanegra even if he was Placido Domingo, though I suppose I might regret that if I ever slide from Wagner towards Verdi. I must also catch up on Prom 13 because I hate missing anything by Richard Strauss, however absurdly pompous it sometimes is.
*Eurocentric and biased towards modernity this may seem, but I think it’s fair