Monday, 24 August 2009

Festival 2006, Part IV - The Masterworks

I've only been to one thing at the International Festival this year (though I have plenty more planned). In the meantime, here's a further snatch from the archives of the 2006 Festival (which occurred prior to the foundation of this website).

As I've noted in previous such posts, the orchestral backbone of the 2006 orchestral programme was the cycles of Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies. The Beethoven happened at 5.30, the Bruckner at 9.30. Sandwiched in between was a Masterwork at 7.30. Unlike the symphonic cycle, I didn't attempt to attend all nine. Furthermore, I would suggest that the title of Masterwork was stretched somewhat in respect of some of these concerts.

As before, I originally wrote the quoted comments on the Naim Audio forum and I have sometimes added comments (italicised and in square brackets). I have made corrections to one or two typos, or added a full name here or there and these changes are not indicated.

On the first evening, Tuesday 15th August, bookended by Beethoven's erioca and Bruckner's first, came Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stefan Anton Reck:

After a rushed dinner, I was at a rather disappointing Das Lied von der Erde. It was from the RSNO under someone of whom I'd not previously heard called Reck [And, indeed, someone I've not come across since]. The whole thing was just rather cold (though everyone else seemed to have enjoyed it far more than I did) and the conductor didn't really acompany the singers very effectively. He went in for a lot of jumping about on the podium, but when he did it often seemed the orchestra didn't (contrast this with someone like Marin Alsop).

After a somewhat unimpressive start by Stuart Skelton (the tenor), I warmed to him. However, I found Jane Irwin's voice rather lacking in character and emotion (except during a few passages towards the end). Perhaps I have listened to accounts from the likes of Ferrier and Baker too many times and just expect too much.


Thursday 17th August saw Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music and Dona nobis pacem and Saturday 19th Schubert's Trout quintet. I passed on both (normally I would attend the Schubert but the pianist was Llyr Williams whom I do not like - a few years back he gave a horribly mannered performance of the D960, pulling it out of all proportion). Week two kicked off on Tuesday 22nd August with Beethoven's sixth, after that and prior to Burckner's fourth came some Brahms:

Beethoven was followed by Richard Goode, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer playing Brahms' first piano concerto. I really should have learnt my lesson from hearing him play one of the Beethoven concerti a few years ago. For the first twenty minutes or so I couldn't decide whether there was something wrong with the piano or his playing. However, occasionally he did sparkle (and the piano sounded right) so it must have been him. Often the sound he got was horribly muddled, almost as though he were hitting too many keys or the instrument was slightly out of tune. I don't know if this was helped by the fact that the orchestra did not tune to the piano [I'd call this amateur, except that would be to insult amateurs. It's one of the reasons I did not attend any of this ensemble's return visit last summer.]. Anyway, were I questing for a word to describe his pianism, hamfisted would probably be at the top of the list. He also played a lot of wrong notes.

I was also none too impressed by the orchestra (which bodes ill for the next two nights). I have a sneaking suspicion the were underrehearsed as a number of important notes (from the horns especially) were fluffed.

Perhaps a schooling on the impossible standards of Gilels/Jochum and Fleisher/Szell doesn't help, but I think there is something in the tone of Goode's playing that I find really uncomfortable and I cannot understand the reviews he gets or the standing he seems to have.

Either way, I am not looking forward to hearing them in Bartok's 3rd this evening (fortunately there is other stuff in the programme).


Two nights later on Thursday 24th, amid Beethoven's fourth and Bruckner's fifth, the same forces, less Goode, returned for a work that struck me as stretching the Masterwork definition well beyond the point of dislocation:

This was followed by the Budapest Festival orchestra in Richard Strauss's Josephslegende. I don't think it's a good work, and certainly not Strauss's best. It suffers badly from a kitchen sink style of orchestration - was there really any need for that wind machine? Indeed, there is often so much going on that everything blurs horribly as a result (making the orchestra appear less good than they are). That said, my impression from the 3 concerts I have heard them give is that they are not an especially well balanced ensemble (the brass and also the basses being among the weak links). I also feel that they are to some degree on autopilot and don't seem to respond to the conductor's movements quickly or as sharply as others.


Saturday 26th August brought the first of two concerts from Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia, featuring the complete Bach Brandenburg concerti (the first, fourth and second, in this case). I passed on both. The next day, however, between Beethoven's eighth and Bruckner's seventh, came something very special indeed, a real Masterwork:

However the star of the evening was NOT Mackerras. The middle concert (and, of which more later, in a poor piece of programming) was Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Etoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars). And how utterly extraordinary it was too. The Netherlands Youth Orchestra were conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw with Benjamin Kobler on the piano and William Pervis on the horn.

The work paints a portrait of various American national parks (and the wildlife, especially the birdlife within), particularly the canyons and the stars above. It also has a strong spiritual dimension (like much of his writing). It's really difficult to describe it without reciting the programme note in full (which I'm not about to do). However, it was a profound experience and one of the finest things I've heard this year (I may start a thread on it soon, in order to ask for help picking out a recording).

The playing was wonderful (and I was very glad I've recently been exploring his catalogue of bird music for solo piano). There is a slow movement for solo horn, meant to represent outer space (titled 'interstellar call'). The way he mixes the brilliance and beauty with the emptiness is staggering and, to my ears, puts Holst's attempts to show this into the shade.

There is some wonderfully clever orchestration (indeed, the strings are very sparse and percussion in some regards steals the show) - some of the wind effects were extraordinary. However, unlike the Strauss from the Budapest orchestra the other evening (where you felt it was very nearly scored for everything up to and including kitchen sink), here there was a clarity to the writing - he blended his instruments masterfully and it never felt like too much.

At an hour and a half it's long (and too much for some, who left), but most seemed to know what they were letting themselves in for and were as impressed as we were (not least by the wonderful playing of the young musicians). [It's worth noting that the upper circle was closed and the hall couldn't have been more than about 20% sold. But for some reason Messiaen never sells well here.]

However, it's the kind of work where at the end you almost feel you never want to hear another note of anything, and certainly not the Bruckner seven due to start in half an hour. In this regard, it was poor programming and not really suitable to fill the space between Beethoven and Bruckner - would that it had been given an evening to itself.


The remaining two concerts were the rest of the Brandenburgs (six, three and five) on Wednesday 30th August and Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. Neither of which I attended, the latter because the pianist was, once again, Williams.

As I've noted before, I love the idea of single work programmes. However, what this demonstrates is that three such programmes in one evening largely defeats the point. As importantly, not every work is up to carrying a whole programme by itself so care should be taken

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