sun 14/07/2024

Proms 67 & 68 review: Freiburg Baroque, Heras-Casado / Mariinsky, Gergiev - reformation and revolution | reviews, news & interviews

Proms 67 & 68 review: Freiburg Baroque, Heras-Casado / Mariinsky, Gergiev - reformation and revolution

Proms 67 & 68 review: Freiburg Baroque, Heras-Casado / Mariinsky, Gergiev - reformation and revolution

Mendelssohn paints a picture, Prokofiev drives a tank

Pablo Heras-Casado: quietly authoritativeDario Acosta

Even tuning up, the multinational musicians of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra make a lovely sound, well-anchored by the tug of four period-instrument cellos and three basses, yet buoyant and stippled with upper-wind colours, flutes circling and dipping like a cliff-edge bird colony. Ideal, then, for the Hebrides Overture which opened this Mendelssohn matinee (★★★★).

With the gentlest of rhythmic swells in the violins, just enough turbulence registered beneath the surface to give an early hint of what would become a subtly revisionist account, formed in the quietly authoritative hands of Pablo Heras-Casado not as an overture with a distinct destination but a tone-poem whose horizons are as limitless as Mendelssohn’s own orchestral imagination. Phrasing the return of the questioning second theme by himself, clarinettist Tindaro Capuano was given – and took – all the time in the world with a soloist’s languid mastery.

Isabelle Faust’s Mozart concerto had been the outstanding part of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's matinee Prom on the opening weekend. She returned here with the self-contained assurance peculiar to her; and a palette of watercolours drawn from her "Sleeping Beauty" Stradivari that’s hardly less subtly tinted than the entire ensemble behind her. There was none of the pretty-girl, white-dress countenance to her Mendelssohn concerto, save perhaps in a vanilla-flavoured Andante, and they scored a coup with the encore: Wagner’s own arrangement for violin and strings of “Träume” from the Wesendonck-Lieder.

Conductor and orchestra have recorded the symphonies together – the CD of this programme is newly available on Harmonia Mundi – and their account of the “Reformation” was no less illuminated than the concerto by mutual trust and understanding. Here the gutsy attack of the Freiburg ensemble came to the fore, to stage in more than abstract instrumental terms the battle of ideologies, won in the end by the serene triumph of “Ein feste Burg”.Valery GergievAll the same, Mendelssohn’s formal emphasis was on the symphony, rather than the socio-religious upheaval which it celebrates. Prokofiev, on the other hand, threw out any such structural niceties when setting texts of Communism’s founding fathers for the Cantata on the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. So much so that even the cultural commissars of Soviet Russia were shocked by the composer’s literal enthusiasm: the piece had to wait until 1992 for an unbowdlerised performance. It has since been heard in London on at least five separate occasions. Hopefully the next one can wait a while.

Valery Gergiev (pictured above by Chris Christodoulou, who also took the image of Denis Matseuv below) hustled through the piece, as he did a decade ago with the LSO, almost as if embarrassed by its jackhammered banalities. As well he, of all people, might be. Tom Service’s listening guide deftly referenced an attack on the piece by the musicologist Richard Taruskin, who doubts what value continued performances of such blatant agitprop can possibly have. I am inclined to agree, though the Mariinsky’s raucous performance (★★★) was greeted by a fellow in the Albert Hall’s Choir waving the red flag and assuring us (so far as I could tell) that the revolution was on its way.

It’s a funny world where a superb piece of late Tchaikovsky can be less often played and heard than Prokofiev’s dated pièce d’occasion. The Third Piano Concerto stands as a magnificent single-movement torso, integrating the big gesture, the racing theme and the folk dance so often and so masterfully fused by Tchaikovsky. Such sleight of hand was rather obscured by Denis Matsuev’s pounding fists at the keyboard.Denis MatsuevMatsuev lacked nothing for brutal impact in the double-octaves and thundering sequences of the lengthy cadenza but, given rather sketchy support by the Mariinsky Orchestra, missed a rare opportunity to sell the piece as a worthy equal of the First and Second. In the time it took him to dash through the gaudily orchestrated Paganini Variations of Lutoslawski, we could have had Taneyev’s completion of the concerto’s Andante and finale.

Finally, in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, the Mariinsky players demonstrated that they still dine at the top table of the world’s orchestras. They probably have this music inscribed on their eyelids, and it showed, with minutely sensitive responses to Gergiev’s quivering pencil-baton. The first movement was full of surprises at every turn, built in broad, even Brahmsian paragraphs, a far cry from the imposingly austere rhetoric of Soviet-era performances. Gergiev pulled off a nice, Haydnesque trick of alternating tempi in the Scherzo, and the leader Olga Volkova gave an irresistibly flirtatious turn in the Carmen-quoting trio. Ardour was a keynote of the Largo, too, and Gergiev kept up the tempo, sometimes to the limits of the playable, in the finale. There was even an appropriately Mahlerian weight and ambivalence to the very end, belying easy categorisations of tragedy or triumph. According to Mendelssohn, music speaks for itself, and words only muddy what’s clear on the page. How Shostakovich and Prokofiev must have longed, from time to time, for their predecessor’s freedom of thought.



Dear Peter, Thank you for your reference to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the article above. However, Tindaro Capuano did not play the clarinet with the COE at our BBC Prom concert on 16th July. The COE's clarinettist was our regular principal clarinet Romain Guyot. Please could you amend the article accordingly? Many thanks.

Many thanks, Coralia. My eyes let me down. I've corrected the copy accordingly. Peter

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