thu 25/07/2024

BBC Proms: Schiff, Hallé, Elder | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Schiff, Hallé, Elder

BBC Proms: Schiff, Hallé, Elder

Top pianist's Bartók shines amidst interpretatively mixed masterworks

Elder: fine with orchestral colour, less good on movementChris Christodoulou

It was partly as penance for having missed the previous evening's Czech festival that I arena-prommed for last night's Moravian finale, to be happily strafed by the nine extra trumpets of Janáček's Sinfonietta.

I hadn't quite expected to be so on the edge of my first-half seat in wonder at the little miracles of Sibelius's Op 66 Scènes historiques, genius personality more apparent in the first two chords than in all but the last minute or so of Havergal Brian's two-hour Gothic Symphony (but let's not go there again). In between, Sir Mark Elder's conducting didn't always keep his Mancunians on their toes - András Schiff's Bartók effortlessly did - but it was all great music and vintage Proms programming.

Let's not underestimate the enterprising Elder for his part in giving us the Proms premiere of Sibelius's second suite transforming the advertised "historical scenes" into ageless tableaux, the charming ideas cast in earlier days as music for a Finnish pageant but reforged in 1911 with the quirky mastery of his maturity following labour on his most austere masterpiece, the Fourth Symphony.

How could we not love, within the silky intimacy the Albert Hall can paradoxically provide if the conductor judges it correctly, the little kicks Sibelius gives to his tiny themes and figures at unexpected points in the symphonic argument of the opening movement, "The Hunt" with its long-delayed Tchaikovsky touch, his singular and uncharacteristic incorporation of a harp in a restrained lovesong, or the winsome lone flute refrains that tease out the minimal, magical final pages of "At the Drawbridge"? Here Sibelius the flawless, tuneful miniaturist and the symphonic master who never peaks too soon meet in as fine a score as any he wrote.

Which is not quite the same thing as a pecking order of seriousness, at the very top of which stands the economical Seventh Symphony as the apotheosis of the Finn's ever-developing art. Elder's performance began well, with careful colours and added violin vibrato in the multi-part string hymn that leads to the first mountain peak - superbly natural work here from Hallé first trombone Gary McPhee. But then it all lost impetus as Elder adapted to Sibelius's many tempo changes with the clunk of a noisy clutch: inorganic and anything but inevitable, however lovely many of the sounds along the way. In that respect, Elder seems determined to honour the stolid memory of a great but often maddening predecessor in Manchester, Sir John Barbirolli, whose treacly Sibelius now sounds almost unbearable against the lither visions of Paavo Berglund and Jukka-Pekka Saraste. As did this.

Schiff_PromIn Bartók's Third Piano Concerto after the interval, it was that noble Hungarian András Schiff (pictured right) who kept the seeming spontaneity fine tuned. It's some time since I heard this work in concert, but so effortless and inevitable did Schiff make all the connections in what can sometimes seem like a disjointed if not over-simplified late work - composed as a kind of insurance policy for the fluent but not over-virtuosic talents of Bartók's wife, Ditta Pásztory - that I sensed what was coming next. And that, of course, always in a good way. If the opening didn't always have the pearly lightness we're used to, Schiff found plenty of that in a playful second theme, and meshed so touchingly with the buzzing, chirping nature nocturne at the heart of the slow movement. His encore, Schubert's ineffable Hungarian Melody (the Bartók had led me to expect Schiff's beloved Bach), extended the ease in a rolling-plains movement that could have held us spellbound for much, much longer.

Elder's way with the Sibelius symphony boded less well for the forward momentum of Janáček's Sinfonietta - and so it proved, despite the ever-thrilling panoply of brass fanfarers who introduce and crown the work, all 13 of them unlisted in the programme. There was a lush, dreamy quality about the short-lived nocturne depicting the Queen's Monastery in Brno; then trombones rasped, piccolos fluttered in panic, horns whooped grotesquely and the stressy chain of woodwind command in the final struggle before the dawn elicited spectacularly full tone.

Yet this Sinfonietta didn't have half the driven energy the veteran Sir Charles Mackerras found here even in his last years, and though it was good to hear the quirky showpiece in the Albert Hall, there was nothing like the same sense of theatre as Janáček makes one final crazy modulation before the blaze of the last chord: odd from such an experienced opera conductor. Still, it was good to hear the quirky showpiece in the Albert Hall, and just like old times to be standing in a packed arena in the distinguished company of a major classical CD producer and other knowledgeable, offbeat folk. There's nowhere else quite like it; note to self to try and get back down there more often.


I wonder whether Sir Mark over-compensated for the more reverberant acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall after last weekend's Wagner as he has conducted a marvellous Sibelius 7 in Bridgewater Hall in the past. The Janáčekwas admittedly slower than other exponents of Czech music have conducted it but from near the front of the arena I heard things I've never noticed before, like the cellos chugging away at the beginning of the last movement. There was a fantasic stereo spread of the 26 brass players at the end.

The Janáček was passionless and a great disappointment. I still have fond memories of Mackerras who brought so much expression to the Czech master's music.

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