Prom 58, Royal Albert Hall, London
The Czech Philharmonic made its return to the Proms with its chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of Russian and Czech works. One of the best things about Prokofiev's Cinderella, with which it began its concert, was that – for once – it wasn't Romeo and Juliet. It is, in fact, a most fascinating and beautiful score that deserves to be heard more often. The first excerpt featured one of those lovely, yearning themes Prokofiev excelled at, followed immediately by a typically gawky, lopsided dance for the Ugly Sisters, and when Cinderella finally arrived at the ball, we were treated to a marvellous, sweeping waltz.
The score has a pale, dreamlike quality, enhanced by the extraordinary filigree-like orchestration – which Ashkenazy's meticulous attention to detail brought out to the full – and somehow an undercurrent of tension, even in the rapturous duet of the Prince and Cinderella. Perhaps the composer could not totally ignore the gathering clouds of war in 1940 by escaping into a fairy tale; certainly, the striking of the clock was suitably terrifying, calling Cinderella, and us, back to reality. An absorbing performance.
Reinhold Gliere is one of those composers whose name we hear more often than his music. Judging from his Concerto for Horn – performed here with a new arrangement for flugelhorn by Mikhail Nakariakov, and played by his son, Sergei Nakariakov – that is a little unfair. There is nothing revolutionary about Gliere's style – indeed, the opening theme, played with bravura by the young-looking soloist, was positively classical in its contours, and was followed by a lovely, lyrical second subject reminiscent of brass bands in the park on Sunday afternoon – but it is enjoyable music, none the less. We perhaps missed the horn's ringing, heroic quality in this arrangement, but what was gained was agility and mellifluence – both amply demonstrated by this talented player, with a delightful, sostenuto singing tone in the atmospheric slow movement and some amazing fast tonguing in the dance-like finale.
In the second half, the orchestra returned from their Russian excursions to home ground, with Dvorak's powerful Seventh Symphony. Ashkenazy imparted an immensely taut energy and drive to the rather dark first movement, which was relieved by flashes of irrepressible Dvorakian lyricism, and there was a similar incisiveness to the rhythmically intoxicating scherzo. Some plangent woodwind and particularly nice horn playing introduced a warmer note in the slow movement, and the finale's tempestuous character was given full rein, storming through to its hard-won major-key conclusion.
This great Central European orchestra still has its own characteristic sound, familiar from Supraphon LPs of old – warm and vibrant, with outstanding woodwind and brass – and it was a pleasure to hear it live in London again.
This Prom will be repeated on Radio 3 next Tuesday at 2pm
Prom 59, Royal Albert Hall, London
Poor old Arnold Schoenberg. The Proms may be commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death with no fewer than 11 works this season, but he's still a bogeyman for some, representing everything they love to hate about "modern music".
The Nash Ensemble offered just two works with an appropriately nocturnal theme in Monday's all-Schoenberg programme, which ended at a much more sensible time than the two other late-night Proms I've attended this year so far, and it attracted a better house than many probably supposed.
Pierrot Lunaire retains the ability to disturb almost 90 years after it was written: far more so than, for instance, the works of Picasso and Duchamp from the same period, or, to take a musical example, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The variety of its emotional explorations, incorporating pathos and humour, insanity and violence, can, however, be underestimated by performers as well as audiences.
Claron McFadden's account of the solo part steered a middle course, technically as well as stylistically, between those singers who firmly emphasise the spoken, rather than the sung, aspects of Sprechstimme, and those who convey more of the actual pitches that Schoenberg notated; the latter approach usually avoids absurd histrionics but can easily knock the stuffing out of a work in which heightened expression is crucial to meaning. With a crack team of instrumentalists, conducted by Pierre-André Valade, and some sensitively deployed amplification, Monday's performance eschewed fancy staging to stress a versatile range of timbre and dramatic nuance as well as allowing us to hear a lot of Schoenberg's sometimes complex counterpoint – a considerable feat in the Albert Hall.
McFadden astutely avoided exaggeration: in "Valse de Chopin", for instance, saving herself for the second verse's "chords of wild desire"; "Madonna", the following number, was exquisitely shaped by players as well as singer. Sometimes I felt a lack of the necessary disquiet: the crescendo in the middle verse of "Nacht", for example, was subjected to steely control but scarcely very frightening. Overall, however, this was a reading of real distinction.
As was the account of Verklärte Nacht that preceded it. The first-ever Proms appearance of Schoenberg's original string sextet version of this seminal Late Romantic work was excellent proof of how eloquent performances of chamber music can be astonishingly effective in an acoustic where a hundred-strong orchestra can occasionally be underwhelming. These expert players could, indeed, achieve an almost orchestral sonority when they wanted to. And even, from where I was sitting, the prominence given – sometimes entirely accidentally, I'm sure – to the two violas had its rewards, expressively as well as in terms of contrapuntal clarity, with gutsy tunes and vivid pizzicato. The audience's rapt silence after this performance was surely, and rightly, one of the longest and most telling this season.
Keith PotterReuse content