Some unenchanted evening

Prom 43

Rob Cowan
Friday 18 August 2000 00:00
Comments

Tuesday's Prom encounter between Sir Andrew Davis and Mahler's Ninth Symphony was like a blind date gone wrong. In saying that, I don't so much mean unfamiliarity as a dutiful effort to connect with the methods and manners of an alien temperament. It just wasn't happening - climaxes sounded confused; the second movement, although fairly crisp, lacked rustic charm; the third was vulgar; and the finale's noble opening chorale, so often likened to "Abide With Me", seemed exactly that, a sonorous crowd-pleaser with too much time on its hands.

Tuesday's Prom encounter between Sir Andrew Davis and Mahler's Ninth Symphony was like a blind date gone wrong. In saying that, I don't so much mean unfamiliarity as a dutiful effort to connect with the methods and manners of an alien temperament. It just wasn't happening - climaxes sounded confused; the second movement, although fairly crisp, lacked rustic charm; the third was vulgar; and the finale's noble opening chorale, so often likened to "Abide With Me", seemed exactly that, a sonorous crowd-pleaser with too much time on its hands.

What should have been soft wasn't soft enough (compare Vänskä and his Scots the night before), and busyness went proxy for rage. Or perhaps it was me. There are many ways of loving that I don't understand, and Sir Andrew's way with Mahler Nine may well be one of them.

Prior to Mahler, Davis and the BBC Symphony were joined by Emanuel Ax for a pianistically accomplished account of Mozart's great E flat Concerto. You could gauge Ax's angle from his own quasi-Beethovenian first movement cadenza, while the one he wrote for the finale - where he entered into a spot of cute dialogue with the BBC Sym- phony's superb lead flautist - underlined the concerto's operatic character. As for the rest, slowly accelerating trills might have been better suited to Gershwin and the slow movement's baleful bassoons were oddly reticent. But there was a redeeming urbanity about the solo playing - an immaculate surface polish - that compensated in part for a certain lack of depth.

Wednesday's Prom was something else again. The enterprising centrepiece was Berlioz' theatrical setting of La mort de Cléopâtre where Olga Borodina was replaced by a rich-voiced and characteristically perceptive Michelle de Young. Mariss Jansons had originally been scheduled to conduct but in the event Manfred Honeck took over the reigns, keeping the Oslo Philharmonic on its toes and making maximum capital of some extraordinary orchestration. The final pages, where Cleopatra looks forward to becoming "once more worthy of Caesar", are among the most remarkable in all of Berlioz.

Honeck's Beethoven Fifth was sleek and tautly controlled. Outer movement repeats were played while antiphonally placed strings helped refresh the impact of well-worn musical arguments. Ravel's La valse blossomed into a marvellous performance, having suffered some marginally exaggerated rubato earlier on. The ear-splitting dénouement brought the house down.

And so the scheduled concert drew to a close, though its meagre playing time gave some clue as to what might still be in store. The odds that Peer Gynt would surface as an encore were pretty overwhelming and Honeck's "Morning" lacked nothing in terms of warmth or atmosphere. Johann Strauss's Voices of Spring had genuine panache though the schmaltz element was never overplayed, and the concert ended with a top-speed gallop through Thunder and Lightning.

The Oslo Phil is in splendid shape and while Jansons' presence was much missed, we couldn't have wished for a finer substitute. There aren't many conductors around who have such strong interpretative ideas or indeed the wherewithal to realise them so effectively in performance.

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