Whatever happened to malice aforethought?

The trouble with Gennady Rozhdestvensky is that he just doesn't do intensity any more.
A NOD is as good as a wink if you're Gennady Rozhdestvensky. And a nod or a wink or a flick of the wrist (or shoulder, for maximum emphasis) is reckoned to be enough to coax, cajole, or simply reassure experienced players that they're on the right track.

Watching Rozhdestvensky steer the BBC Philharmonic through Vaughan Williams' Overture "The Wasps" on Thursday, night, the benign smile said it all, really. Enjoy. And they did. The buzz-word proliferated speedily through the strings to varying degrees of intensity (nicely judged) only to relax into one of the composer's happiest inventions - "green and pleasant" indeed.

Rozhdestvensky just left them to it. From his preferred position on the floor, "among" his players (no podium for him), he basically set a tempo, and looked on. And it was enough. For now.

But Vaughan Williams in repose is not Walton in anger, and there followed later a fatally inert account of Walton's First Symphony. Pieces like this need intensive care, preparation, motivation - intensive everything.

But if appearances are anything to go by, Rozhdestvensky doesn't do intensive any more. It's a kind of laziness, an assumption that pieces like this will look after themselves, that a good orchestra (and the BBC Philharmonic is certainly that) will make the running on his behalf.

I say "running", but he failed miserably on even the fundamental establishment of workable tempi. Walton's first movement is seismic; it's about upheaval (between-the-wars in every sense). But it's about urgency, too - the rhythmic imperative, the rhythmic vehemence of it is absolutely critical. And this - from the insistent string figures of the opening bars onwards - was dead on arrival.

No tension, no impetus, no threat. The scherzo is marked Presto, con malizia (and we're talking malice aforethought), which was laughable in the circumstances - though not for the timpanist who clearly found it practically impossible to fire off his ripping exclamations without the benefit of a tail-wind. Feeble.

At least the solo flute was able to take Walton at his word in the slow movement, making much of the melody marked Doloroso molto espressivo.

But without a context of stress and strife to give it meaning, it kind of drifted by. As did the symphony. Rozhdestvensky just wasn't there for it.

Whether or not he was there for Simon Bainbridge's harrowing symphonic song-cycle Ad Ora Incerta, I cannot say, because such is the innate power of Primo Levi's texts (drawn from his own experiences of the Holocaust) and the almost fixed expression of Bainbridge's settings - like "bad news" bound for eternity - that the whole concept of "performance" seems suddenly irrelevant.

Mezzo soprano Susan Bickley and her "constant companion" (her inner-self?), the bassoonist Kim Walker, nursed their outrage through snowstorm and frozen wasteland, woodwinds whirring in perpetuum, glacial strings fixing the desolation in your mind.

Occasionally, such alien sounds as the eerie wail of the flexatone, the sinister shuffle of percussion, or the scream of the factory whistle would break through this morass of barely suppressed rage and remembrance to give the words a terrible explicitness. But for the most part they were intoned with primitive and impartial and numbing inevitability - an extraordinary, proactive kind of monotony set to continue, one felt, until someone finally took notice.

The Soviets took notice of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony "Babi Yar" and duly outlawed it for daring to endorse the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's contention that Mother Russia was as culpable in her anti-Semitism as had been her Nazi invaders.

It didn't end there. Words and music went on to conspire in a damning indictment of Stalinism in all its invidiousness. And as with the Bainbridge, the force of the simple gesture triumphantly succeeded. Vassily Sinaisky was much more of a "hands-on" conductor here than Rozhdestvensky had been the previous night.

But some elements of compromise, of punches pulled, were still evident. Perhaps Sergei Leiferkus might have coloured his vocal commentary more trenchantly; perhaps the male voices of the Huddersfield and Leeds Festival Choirs might have been better schooled in the dark and decisive ways of Slavic declamation (too many fuzzy entries). Perhaps it could all have been more unforgiving. No perhaps about it.

Edward Seckerson

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