Saturday 7 May 2011

Denève and the RSNO end their season with Beethoven and Adams

To open the final concert of their 2010/11 season, Denève and the RSNO had chosen John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece written for the New York Philharmonic to mark the first anniversary of 9/11. I have the recording of those concerts and have long found it a powerful piece, so it's good to have the opportunity to hear it live.

What struck me most was the various things it reminded me of, from the opening ambient sounds of New York, not entirely unlike the start of Miles Davis's final album Doo-Bop, to the refrain of "missing" which calls to mind Thomas Dolby's One of our Submarines. However, perhaps the most interesting parallel can be drawn with another of the Ten out of 10 works that have featured so prominently this season, and in my view the most successful of them: Magnus Lindberg's Graffiti. Just as that drew on scraps of writing from around Pompeii, so too Adams sets similar fragments from 9/11, perhaps most poignantly in the repeated words of American Airlines flight attendent Madeline Sweeny "I see water and buildings..."

The minimalist settings and blending of electronic elements combine to give a familiar Adams sound world, and Denève controlled his various forces well. The RSNO chorus added a nicely etherial tone.
Perhaps the only stumble came with the offstage trumpet quoting Ives. It may have been a function of where I was seated, but positioned outside the centre door to the dress circle it was just far too prominent. Louder, indeed, that it would have been on the stage, rather defeating what surely is the point of offstage placement.

After the interval came Beethoven's mighty and joyful 9th symphony. While this is same pairing that was made at the Adams premiere, I'm not entirely convinced how well the two works fit together as a programme, but then I'm not sure what would be a good fit for the Adams (which is probably why the CD contains the twenty-five minute work alone). Denève's take on the Beethoven was a fairly modern one, which is to say that he didn't hang about at all, racing through it in around an hour. As such, it often felt a little rushed. Of course, in fairness to him, this is more or less what Beethoven calls for (as can be seen from recordings such as Mackerras's with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the first to use Del Mar's new editions, the booklet for which contains a very interesting note by Mackerras about tempi). And while such approaches can work well, it takes a very agile ensemble to really bring it off. Ultimately, whatever Beethoven's intentions, I find a slightly weightier, more measured and authoritative approach more satisfying. In particularly, the scherzo didn't quite have the bite or excitement it might have done, nor did the adagio have the beauty.

They felt most at home in the finale which, for the most part, was suitably pulse-racing and lifting. However, this too was not perfect, the main flaw lying with an unimpressive quartet of soloists. "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" requires a commanding authority but Tómas Tómasson did not possess one. Tenor Charles Castronovo was next to inaudible and lacked clear diction. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was better when you could hear her, but that wasn't too often. Together with Sabina Cviliak it made for a pretty unbalanced quartet.

Fortunately, behind them the RSNO Chorus were on hand to provide as much weight and authority as one could wish for. Together with the orchestra, they brought the work to a strong conclusion. Yet, overall, for me it lacked the power the 9th can have.

One final niggle was, that for some unclear reason, the concert was taking place on a Thursday and not the normal Friday night. Given that's already the SCO's night, not mention that Thursday's are not the most convenient night for me, and it seemed a needless and frustrating clash.


Iain said...

The reason for the Thursday night was that the Usher Hall management, in yet another example of their mindless incompetence, had let the hall on the Friday.
The Usher Hall's treatment of the RSNO in recent years is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks Iain - I thought that must be it, but there didn't seem to be a gig on. Was it a private letting or had I just missed something.

I'm no fan of the running of the Usher Hall.

Iain said...

I believe it was a private let. You would think they would have the nous to check with their biggest client before letting the hall on a Friday night. Ah well, I gather it didn't diminish the audience and hopefully it won't happen again!

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