wed 20/09/2017

Prom 50 review: Josefowicz, Clayton, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla - personality in every bar | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 50 review: Josefowicz, Clayton, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla - personality in every bar

Prom 50 review: Josefowicz, Clayton, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla - personality in every bar

Light rather than power in Beethoven, plus two superb soloists in Stravinsky and Barry

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: look, no baton! No score!All images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Everything you may have read about Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's wonder-working with her City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is true. Confined to a Turkish hospital bed when their first Prom together took place last August, I wondered from the radio broadcast if the extremes in Tchaikovsky weren't too much. In the live experience last night, the miracle of the detail and the justification for even the most startling decisions proved totally convincing. And what a stunner of a programme, too, with plenty of wit in Stravinsky and Gerald Barry (of course) and a lightness you don't often get in trailblazing Beethoven.

Mirga – the single name is as likely to stick as Adele or Beyoncé – conducted her Beethoven without a score or a stick. Potentially dangerous, in the latter case, when so much rhythmic precision is needed. There was no need to worry, though: the liberation of Florestan by his courageous wife in the Leonore No. 3 Overture flew with both spirit and focus, while the offstage – back of the hall – trumpet call conjured more drama than the whole of Juanjo Mena's half-tilt Fidelio performance earlier in the Proms. Usually it's the flute solo after it that sets the spine tingling, but here Mirga urged a very special other-worldly sense of awe from unison winds just before. The flurry of string activity into the final victory was done by starting with the front desk of violins and spreading to the back – another cause for frisson.

Leila Josefowicz at the PromsThe winds' brilliantly placed, spot-on snap chords in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto were as much a thing of wonder as Leila Josefowicz's electrifying tune-calling (the violinist pictured above). Not for her any metrical rigidity; she set such a dangerous pace for the finale that you wondered if Mirga could keep tabs on her. But she did, and in any case Josefowicz was tuned in to the orchestral soloists so far behind her in various duets, making wonderful triangles with Mirga and flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic, later replaced by first horn Elspeth Dutch: ineffable woman power at the Proms. Just occasionally she seemed to be playing from her own special edition, but the suppression of a trill here, a double-stopping there only seemed to help Stravinsky's imaginative strangeness.

I don't think I've ever heard such a buzz of excited chatter in a packed Albert Hall as we got at the end of Gerald Barry's Canada. What struck the composer as the "everyday and strange" name and country furnishes three syllables very variously enunciated by the brilliant Allan Clayton, totally at ease in the vasts of Albert's colosseum. We also get some of the words (in English, French and German) but not – unless it's so subterranean I didn't catch it – the music of the Prisoners' Chorus from Fidelio, two orchestral wild rides, typical Barry berserking, one consonant, the next dissonant, and a coda in which the soloist encouraged the orchestra to speak "Canada" ever more softly (a final play on the captives' "spricht leise"). No idea why, but it brought tears to my eyes – of hilarity, sadness? With Barry it's so difficult to tell. But certainly the hall laughed freely, and this typically unsettling jeu d'esprit lasted not a second too long (pictured below, composer, tenor and conductor with the CBSO).

Clayton, Barry and Mirga at the PromsThere was no chance that Beethoven's Fifth would be too portentous after it, not in Mirga's re-imagining, anyway. Natural trumpets and bright kettledrums had set us up for this in the Beethoven Overture (maybe she might soon follow Robin Ticciati's example with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and have valveless horns, too, though the modern variety sounded terrific). She took the best-known first movement in symphonic history as a keenly-articulated scherzo, though not without the force to make the oboe's voice from another world as startling as ever; the Andante was indeed, as it too rarely is con moto, more an intermezzo where delicate winds and strings had to overcome the pompous brass interjections.

The real drama came in the interlinked Allegros of the last two movements, dynamics awesomely quiet and tense for the hobgoblinish half-lights of the third so that the great blaze came upon us suddenly. No finale repeat, praise be, and only fun to be had with the over-extended ending. I may never get used to the most flatulent C major symphonic conclusion of all, which is probably my blind spot, but best that it be despatched with light and good humour. And while Josefowicz had chosen to follow Stravinsky's very sincere homage to music's greatest master – "Bach with smallpox" was Prokofiev's unkind and untrue response – not with a Partita movement but with Esa-Pekka Salonen's Chaconne Lachen Verlernt (Laughter Unlearned), Mirga chose the most exquisite, stylistically pure encore possible: the Air on the G string from the Third Orchestral Suite, allowing solo quartet supported by double bass its own special ornamentation to send us away treading air. As for Mirga's now-customary invitation to join her and the orchestra in Birmingham, this coming season gives plenty of reasons to be there.

Comments

I was at this Prom concert last Tuesday 22nd August and saw the telecast on BBC 4 last night. There was much that was good but... To say “the justification for even the most startling decisions proved totally convincing” conceals the fact that this was more Mirga's 5th than Beethoven's. At key points Mirga quite simply did not play the music Beethoven wrote and her constant lack of consistency over tempo within movements, let alone between movements, made this an account of which Chopin interpreters would have been proud. It was certainly not "classical" nor consistent with the musical style of the times in which it was written. The key points where this was Mirga and not Beethoven? First, the very start. Beethoven wrote quaver rest, 3 quavers and a minim with a pause marked over it (all musicians know this implies something like a dotted minim). Mirga ignored the pause, and when combined with her very fast opening tempo, the result was not fate knocking ominously at the door - more fate at the bathroom door urgently needing the lavatory. The effect was poor. Second. At the beginning of the final movement - joyous affirmation of positivism in the major key - Beethoven wrote the whole opening statement fortissimo (i.e. glorious affirmation). Mirga inserted a sudden decresendo halfway through the phrase rising back to fortissimo and thus changed its whole meaning. Not so much glorious affirmation more "catch you breath". It didn't work as Beethoven intended and was certainly not an improvement on the original. This review, like many written about Mirga's interpretations, ignores her lack of authenticity.

Maybe it's a luxury for those of us who've been used to the 'one nail too many' effect in Beethoven to enjoy something completely different. I was convinced by her decisions, does more need to be said? As we know, composers have always been divided on 'authenticity' in the performance of their scores. Many, like Shostakovich, could be persuaded of a completely new approach. I did say that on the radio I wasn't convinced by what she did to Tchaik 4 - but then I love that symphony, and Beethoven's Fifth has always been a problem for me, at least in the second movement and finale.

Thank you for your response which says all we need to know.Your review was based upon your over familiarity with a piece of music with which you clearly have problems. The enduring popularity of Beethoven's 5th suggests that your personal issues are not widely shared and this generation and the next deserve to hear performances which respect Beethoven's intentions, leaving the audience to judge for itself. The two innovations I highlighted diminished the piece and that should not go without mention.

I can assure you my views are shared by everyone I've spoken to. Still very much your opinion that the innovations 'diminished the piece'. To which you're entitled, as am I to my professional opinion.

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