One hundred years ago you knew where you were with Hungarian music. Successive generations of symphonists had borrowed its stamping rhythms and tart harmonic twists, repackaging the popular clichés of dark-eyed Magyar passion for a blue-eyed Teutonic audience. Then along came Bartók, the subtlest student of folk idioms, and his post-war successors, Ligeti and Kurtág. Something gaudy, ersatz and touristic grew progressively cooler and more complex, and fire turned to ice. Understated, ambiguous and minutely controlled, the music of Peter Eötvös belongs to this tradition.
Co-commissioned by Glyndebourne and the BBC, and adapted from Gabriel García Márquez's novella, Love and Other Demons is Eötvös's fifth full-length opera. Scored for celesta and mirror-image choirs of strings, woodwind and brass, the orchestration is exquisitely crafted and beautifully realised by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski. A single melody based on the 12-year-old heroine's name is threaded through the splintered orchestral textures, catching the ear as a strand of hair might catch the eye in sunlight. But Eötvös's introverted, icy soundworld is fundamentally ill-suited to what emerges in Kornél Hamvai's crude libretto as a tropical Thorn Birds with added voodoo rituals, mad nuns, rabid dogs and a violent exorcism.
In a nod to bel canto, Eötvös supplies stratospheric melismas for the semi-feral Sierva Maria (a fearless Allison Bell). The rest of the English, Latin, Spanish and Yoruba libretto is set syllable by syllable. As the lust-struck Father Delaura, Nathan Gunn draws remarkable lyricism from Eötvös's austere lines, while Jean Rigby delivers a stunning performance as mad Martina. With the exception of Mats Almgren's unintelligible Don Toribio, the supporting cast (Felicity Palmer, Marietta Simpson, John Graham-Hall and Robert Brubaker) sing with superb diction. Played out in the charred ruins of a Spanish colonial convent and dressed with periwigged zombies, Silviu Purcarete's production is as over-heated as the score is languid.
The knives were out for Maestro (BBC2) long before the series began but I watched, riveted, on Tuesday night as Alex James, Peter Snow, Sue Perkins, Jane Asher, Katie Derham, David Soul, Goldie and Bradley Walsh took up their batons and the BBC Concert Orchestra gleefully relinquished its customary duty to protect incompetent conductors from musical carnage. Aside from the pleasure of watching Sir Roger Norrington's disbelief as Grieg, Prokofiev, Strauss and Bizet spluttered to a halt, the most striking aspect of the first episode was how critical it is for any conductor to be at ease in their body. This is why Goldie, who doesn't read music, can deliver a superior performance to Blur's Alex James, who seemed surprised to discover there were hands on the end of his arms. It is also why Gustavo Dudamel, who still has a great deal to learn as an interpreter, has been fast-tracked to superstardom, and why Gianandrea Noseda, whose musical ideas are altogether more developed but whose movements are still faintly Jamesian, is unlikely to enjoy as lucrative a career as the young Venezuelan.
Noseda's sympathetic, astute, brilliantly coloured performance of Il tabarro (Prom 34) with the BBC Philharmonic was inevitably overshadowed by Dudamel's appearance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Prom 37). On paper, there is little to choose between the two orchestras but Noseda has put so much effort into shaping the BBC Phil's attack and sound that it is by far the more interesting and expressive ensemble. Excellent singing from Barbara Frittoli, Lado Ataneli, Miroslav Dvorsky, Jane Henschel, Barry Banks, Alastair Miles, Allan Clayton, Katherine Broderick and Edgaras Montvidas underlined the tautness of Puccini's score. Not a note is wasted, not even the river-traffic claxons. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Rachmaninov's First Symphony, despite Noseda's triple-espresso reading. Alexander Glazunov is said to have conducted the 1895 premiere "through a haze of vodka". One can hardly blame him.
I'd be lying if I said that Dudamel's performance was a disappointment. It's not every day that you get to see six middle-aged Swedish brass-players shake their tushies to Carmen Miranda's Tico Tico, and of course it is deeply exciting to watch a conductor with such natural rhythmic drive and physical confidence. Even so, I was more impressed with his careful husbandry of Anders Hillborg's commedia dell'arte clarinet concerto, Peacock Tales, than I was by his puppyish Ravel and Bizet. Accompanying clarinettist Martin Fröst, Dudamel was forced to maintain a small, clear beat over tight, crisp blocks of sound, and it was obvious that this was a very well-prepared performance. La Valse and Symphonie fantastique were charismatic and bold but lacked the whirl of decay and disease and hatred and desire both works demand. Dudamel has so much talent in his hands, arms, head and torso, so much personality and vigour. But at 27, he may not have paused to consider the fascistic menace of La Valse or experienced the acute disturbance of the soul that moved Berlioz.
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