CLASSICAL MUSIC / Too big and too loud, but no one gives a damn

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The Independent Culture
WITH resignations, actual or threatened, on all sides, it has been a bad week for Welsh National Opera (whose general director Matthew Epstein announced his departure in protest against underfunding); for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (which could lose Simon Rattle now that its bid to be bailed out of deficit has failed) and for the Arts Council. But Covent Garden had happier business to report, as Bernard Haitink celebrated his 65th birthday on Friday with a new production of Janacek's Katya Kabanova. And Haitink is not resigning. On the contrary, his relationship with the Garden has never been so secure. After the triumph of last autumn's Meistersinger, he is on a definite high - which carries through to this Katya. His command of the score is masterly, with the broad architectural sense he has always imported into opera from his symphonic background. The orchestra plays with a radiant beauty. And the cast is strong. Making her house debut in a full role, the Kirov soprano Elena Prokina is a lovely Katya. Not, perhaps, as fresh across the whole voice as she might be - there's a hard edge to the tone - but affecting, animated, and nicely judged as the innocent heart at the centre of an emotional maelstrom. For Janacek, Katya was an emblem of his unrequited love for Kamila Stosslova, the young (married) woman he had met and seized on unilaterally as his muse a few years earlier. For the music it generated, and the time it lasted (11 years), it is perhaps the most bizarrely productive infatuation in cultural history.

But I have problems with this production, basically because it's too big. Haitink is, for all his virtues, not an ideal Janacek conductor: that broad vision doesn't accommodate the skeletal urgency the music needs. And Trevor Nunn, doing his first work specifically for the Garden, is not an ideal Janacek producer. Katya is a tightly packaged piece of sub- Chekhovian bourgeois trauma. Although it harbours lyrically expansive moments, most of the narrative is incisive and epigrammatic. It is not Gone with the Wind. But Nunn seems to think it might be, giving it sweeping gestures (like live horses pulling an absurdly over-rustic wagon to take Tichon on his journey) that make it more romantic-epic, more West End, than it can bear. Those Haywain horses trample underfoot what should be a searing face-to- face encounter. And though Maria Bjornson's designs look good, they're pitched at the level she uses in her work for Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is too loud. The audience liked it, so I dare say I'm a spectre at the feast; but I'd rather that than a phantom at the opera. Not, at least, in Janacek.

Opera and bad news aside, it has also been a week for violinists and contrasting string styles - starting with Maxim Vengerov, whose Barbican recital attracted a large, adoring crowd in search of youth (well, aren't we all). For Vengerov is 19. He looks older, and he presents himself in concert with a slightly swaggering self-assurance that seems middle- aged. But he is one of the most dazzling under-age talents in the world. A Russian from the school of Zakhar Bron (the legendary, old Soviet teacher responsible for just about all the good violinists who aren't taught by Dorothy Delay in New York), he now lives in Israel. You may detect a pattern there.

But Vengerov's playing isn't pattern-bound. It's flashy but extremely elegant: not an enormous sound, but penetrating in its focus and sense of purpose. And with a resourceful command of dynamic range - loud and soft being essentially comparative qualities - he makes sure that his big statements really register. His Mozart was all finesse, his Prokofiev all colour; and although his Brahms (the 1st Sonata) was lightweight, undervalued by fast speeds, it showed off an amazing fluency. This then became the determining quality of display pieces by composers like Wieniawski and Kreisler. The whipped cream of the repertory, they were whipped here with dextrous brilliance to the point of take-off.

All of which was a far remove from the seriousness of Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich at the RFH. In a determinedly equal-status violin and piano recital they showed none of Vengerov's glitter: just absorbed musicianship of a disconcerting kind that seemed oblivious to the audience. This was something personal between Kremer, Argerich and Beethoven - part, in fact, of a touring series in which the players draw from a selected pool of Beethoven violin sonatas as the mood takes them. On Monday the mood was for the Kreutzer Sonata, Opus 47, and for a performance of blazing integrity: a profound and direct encounter with the score, uncompromised by niceties of surface beauty. For myself, I could have coped with just a bit of compromise in that direction; but the off-the-wall asperity of what they did was certainly exciting. And apparently spontaneous, with almost the animal intensity of jazz. A quite extraordinary performance.

And finally, a note on Sarah Chang, whom I caught in Leipzig, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Kurt Masur. I've raved about Ms Chang before: her musicianship, beyond mere technique, is downright diabolical for somebody of 13. But this Tchaikovsky date was disappointing: rich and full-toned but not obviously conscious. She looked hypnotised. Or maybe tired. I hope someone is worrying on her behalf about the pressures of a sudden international career.

'Katya Kabanova': ROH, WC2, 071- 240 1066, Tues and Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)