vendredi 30 juillet 2010

Orchestras on Steroids

I was in London for a day of work and picked Gramophone at the newsstand.The venerable magazine new layout is easier to read and it has always interesting content. The accompanying CD includes the storm from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony played by the Basel Chamber Orchestra under its chief conductor, Giovanni Antonini.

Listening to the excerpt in my car was a surprise, the orchestra sounds huge ... There is always a certain tendency inspired by baroque practices to push the sound but what we have here is more likely the results of engineers trying to beef up the voulme of the ensembles. By comparison, Abbado and Berlin Philh in a joyful 3rd movement of Brahms's Violin concerto with a glorious Gil Saham are underwhelming whereas the Mozart Orchestra playing Pergolese's Stabat Mater genuinely sounds like a Chamber ensemble.

The surprising thing is that in the past, many musicians and particularly baroque players were criticizing Karajan for messing with studios buttons to produce what was considered an unnatural and over-powerful sound. Are not all these baroque chamber ensembles unconsciously trying to resemble like someone they criticised so much ?

mardi 27 juillet 2010

Royal Albert Hall

J Duchen's blog is well-known. I was sorry to read that she felt unwell during the Proms's Meistersinger but saw that I may not be the only one who has a problem with the Royal Albert Hall, read here ...

vendredi 16 juillet 2010

I did not come to praise the Proms ...

It was my intention to watch the opening night of the Proms, Mahler 8 but the cable of my TV may have been (yet again) eaten by my children rabbits. My loss is the blog gain. (More on the Proms here).

The Proms is an initiative for which I am at best ambivalent. It offers at an attractive price a wide range of music. Programs are genuinely varied. If the end of the season brings visiting orchestras which can be often playing works on the safe side, adventurous programs are plentiful.

I first went there in 1978 for a Brendel - Abbado LSO program (Webern op 1, Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto and Tchaik 5th) and mostly remember the thrill of seeing these artists.

I returned in 1980 for the first BBC SO concert after the musician strike with a program led by Sir John Pritchard with Jessye Norman as soloist. I have few remaining impressions of the performance of Mahler 4, which may have been a one-off case for Jessye Norman but have found memories of Messian's glorious Poème pour Mi. I was not aware of it at the time but this was my best Proms moment.

In 1985, I was studying at Imperial College and the LSO under Colin Davis (not yet Sir Colin) played the same Mahler 8 with Bernum-like huge chorus forces outnumbering the audience. I was then back at the Proms in 1999 for a disappointing Ravel Beethoven Program with an unusual loud VPO under Sir Simon Rattle (I was in the chorus seats and felt that the balances and dynamics were so Un-Viennese). Earlier in the season, I had left the hall during Rameau's les Boréades with the same conductor because I just could not hear the instruments.

My last Proms was a very weak concert with Dudamel and his Gothenburg Orchestra which led me to ask in concertonet if the Albert Hall was not simply the worst of all possible concert halls and if one should not simply move the Proms elsewhere or close them ?

Looking back, I am afraid that I cannot think of one good evening. The stadium-size of the Hall makes music listening a very random event. Can the musicians really hear when they play ? Again, the VPO did not sounded like themselves. Dudamel led a technically poor Symphonie Fantastique but he did a more competent one (if not very Fantastique ...) in the Salle Pleyel with a combination of the French Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique and his Simon Bolivar forces. 

There is a genuine festive atmosphere and it is a democratic place but quality is just impossible to achieve in such a gigantic venue.

BBC engineers do a good job of capturing a lot of music and produce a good sound but how much is their work and nothing else ? Maybe, I came to praise them, maybe the Proms is a radio - now TV - event and not a musical one ?

(enclosed here a picture of Julius Ceasar staged by Peter Stein at Salzburg's magical Felsenreitschule where every word, every whisper was audible.)

jeudi 15 juillet 2010


Please remember that there was a time when Janacek was unknown and very rarely played. Two persons can be credited for the composer's revival and presence, one is Gérard Mortier who stressed the depth and importance of Janacek as a genuine theatrical composer, the other one is Charles Mackerras who sadly passed away today.

I heard him conduct a magic  Cunning Little Vixen at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.The performance is available on DVD and I would recommend it as much as the also much-loved recording with the VPO and a glorious Lucia Popp. I also remember that he and his leading Soprano were eating at the little Chinese Restaurant after the performance. Good food, plain and simple, tasty and feeling, like his music.

mercredi 7 juillet 2010

New York New York ...

For those interested, the NY Phil and some other American orchestras are hiring. Pay is said to be good, so ...

Remember that this is not true everywhere. As an example, hiring ensembles from Eastern Europe is and has been a common practice to reduce costs. The Chatelet whom I have so many times regretted the declining standards with the new management did this for West Side Story (in French sorry).

As we are currently in NY for vacations and work, we all went to see West Side Story in Broadway (and for those who go, we found bargain tickets at the TKTS TicketBooth right in front of the theater). Cast was young, talented, energetic.(Josefina Scaglione, the Maria in particular is from Argentina and is really right for this part.)  No Opera voices, good actors, good dancers. Production is smart, just the right amount of activities on stage. Music is just wonderful.

This is what I call pay real tribute to this work. Have they done a better musical ever ?

I was forgetting, yes, musicians were locals.