BBC Prom 73, VPO/Bychkov, 10 September 2015

BBC Prom 73, 10 September 2015

Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F Major
Schmidt – Symphony No. 2 in E flat major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor – Semyon Bychkov

Clearly it would be ungrateful to wish that this concert had not taken place in the Royal Albert Hall, given the small number of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in London across the years and that many of the capacity audience would otherwise be denied a chance to hear their “favourite” orchestra. But for once, it was quite impossible to put aside any suspension of disbelief in the RAH acoustic, at least from my standing place in the gallery. The subtleties of Brahms’ most enigmatic symphonic work were often lost in the wallow of the huge space, and the over-active detail of Schmidt’s orchestration regularly became annoyingly bright and shiny. In the absence of a decent concert hall in London, the performance of both works (and I thought I’d never say this) would have been heard to better effect in the comparatively smaller and dryer Royal Festival Hall.

Other factors weighed against universal approval of the Brahms, the sole work in the first half of the concert. An early start, necessitated by another prom concert later in the evening, meant more latecomers than usual were admitted after the first movement, in all parts of the hall. Determined inter-movement clapping from the same two sources higher up in the hall also contributed to keeping the atmosphere disturbed. None of the music that Bychkov and the orchestra have in the repertoire for their current tour (through Salzburg, Grafeneg, Birmingham, London, Lucerne, Bucharest, Vienna and Linz, for 23 days) would have been ideal as an opening work before the Brahms – though Haydn’s 44th Symphony would have been a particular pleasure. Indeed, during their tour, the Brahms symphony is consistently placed on its own; though, significantly, always in the second half of a concert. I’m not intending to demean music as a useful crowd control device, but for once, anything that settled the audience, gave the clapping-addicts some early satisfaction, and prepared more people for listening to the Brahms sufficiently closely, would have been very welcome.

The first movement was taken briskly, with less neurotic questioning of each phrase than in many performances. Instead, some “classical” restraint through both thematic groups in the exposition meant the outbursts in the development and coda had a careful structural significance. The effect on the harmonic momentum caused by some unmarked slowing during transitions into the second subject group and the repeat of the exposition was negligible, and in contrast the continuation of pulse during the horn passage leading to the recapitulation was a welcome lack of indulgence, in keeping with the more objective approach to the movement as a whole.

That’s not to imply any absence of warmth or subtlety in the conducting or playing, shown especially in the sequences of the second movement, where mood and colour brightened and darkened imperceptibly, yet were kept in the same careful structure balance. Few orchestras can match the VPO for a sound that is so entirely appropriate to Brahms’ most echt-Viennese music in the third movement of this work. But here, one began to wonder if the objective approach was a deliberate response to the constraints of the hall or an attempt to keep excess passion in check. Either way, it wasn’t as entrancing as expected, even if in keeping with the restraint shown through the work as a whole.

No problems in the last movement, where the simplicity of phrasing in the chorale-like theme held its place in the excitable surrounding passages, and placed the emotional weight of the movement appropriately in the coda rather than any of the preceding climaxes.

Whatever Schmidt learned during his brief period of music theory study with Bruckner, it was obviously unlikely to be a sense of classical restraint. The first proms performance of Schmidt’s Second Symphony, doubtless also the first time many in the audience had heard it live or at all, was incessantly virtuosic and exuberant – but did nothing to dispel the sense that the work comprises a luxuriously rich sequence of near-random passages, held together more by repetition than symphonic necessity.

Unfamiliarity is not the issue. During the early decades of the 20th century, British critical reaction to similar outsize late-romantic symphonic music may have been bewildered and inadequate through lack of exposure to that idiom. These days the rapid assimilation of far more complex idioms is standard, and the problem instead is maintaining interest in this particular work as a symphony, despite its considerable superficial character and occasional grand (or loud) gestures.

Some instances of the musical imagery and ideas are appealing enough for a few bars, but the lack of substantial development and transition from one statement to its next repetition is ultimately frustrating. The middle movement “cleverly” appends the scherzo and trio as the last of a set of variations instead of a stand-alone movement on their own, but the lack of invention in most of the preceding eight variations numbs appreciation of that structural effect. Paragraphs and melodic fragments start, rich orchestration builds, all to tail off uncertainly towards another restatement of the same material, especially in the finale. Some passages – the eighth variation in the second movement, the polyphonic wind choir opening the last movement – reach expressive heights on their own. The military second theme in the scherzo sounds oddly like a prefigurement of Hindemith. But right up to the perfunctory conclusion, these passages remain isolated moments of clarity in a swirl of unstructured colour.

Bychkov clearly likes the work, having conducted it regularly, and it’s hard to imagine it played more sympathetically than in this performance. Even the most awkardly-written tutti passages had unquestionable coherence and momentum, and everywhere else the fluency in line and texture kept the attention, if not the interest. The problems with the piece are hardly atypical of its period, nor can every unknown work be expected to return to the repertory as a masterpiece. If you’re happy to put musical logic aside, and want 45 minutes of huge, unfamiliar late-romantic noise, then this symphony is, just, enjoyable enough.

Macbeth, Styles/Huffman, Glyndebourne/ROH, 9 September 2015


Luke Styles, Shakespeare (adapted by Ted Huffman)
Glyndebourne at Linbury Studio Theatre, 9 September 2015

Duncan/Second Murderer – John Mackenzie-Lavansch
Malcolm – Michael Wallace
Sergeant/First Murderer – David Shaw
Lennox/Third Murderer – James Geer
Ross – Benjamin Cahn
Macbeth – Ed Ballard
Banquo – Alessandro Fisher
Lady Macbeth – Aidan Coburn
Macduff – Richard Bignall
Fleance – Luke Saint
Lady Macduff/Porter – Andrew Davies
Macduff’s son – Xavier Murtagh

Director – Ted Huffman
Designer – Kitty Callister
Lighting Designer – David Manion

members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor – Jeremy Bines

Lucky the opera composer of today, able to set classic drama (Shakespeare obviously, in this case) free from pressure to conform with musical conventions or expectations. Whilst Luke Styles and librettist Ted Huffman might have been limited in terms of duration and scale by the Glyndebourne chamber opera circumstances for which the opera was commissioned, there’s no obvious musical hinderance to their use of any form or mode of expression compared to many historic attempts.

The precedents, after all, are hardly enouraging: the C19th number-opera form comes close to destroying any musico-dramatic individuality in Verdi’s Macbeth; A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest both engendered settings as contrived and artificial as any C19th archetype; and, post-expressionist in the wrong way, Reimann’s Lear bores the audience by mistaking sonic violence for dramatic intensity.

For this new work, premiered in 2015 at the Glyndbourne Festival and receiving its London premiere with a single sold-out performance, Styles has taken the approach of a loose mix of accompanied recitative and arioso, arguably a better framework with its Monteverdian precedent than any other historic musico-formal approach.

The music has his typically sparse instrumental groupings and themes which are more fragmentary than aphoristic, all welded into a coherent, easy to grasp musical structure. Take for example the careful use of timbres and textures for dramatic exposition (flute and harp duet for Lady Macbeth, the a cappella wordless chorus under Macbeth’s soliloquies, a descending scale for an assassination motif). Throughout the 75 minute work, there is a contrast in moods that is not just a Pavlovian reaction to narrative events; the choice of a simple held chord deepens the emotional focus at key moments, better than any outpouring through predictable decoration.

Examples of Styles’ previous works such as Shades of Forward and Bellagio by Water will give some idea of the sounds of Macbeth, as does the extract from a previous Glyndebourne opera, Darkness – Waking Shadow.

The staging consisted of green grassy matting and a handful of furniture props; the orchestra was located at the rear of the stage, providing ideal balance; and subtitles, not always needed with the quality of diction many of the singers achieved, projected in large letters on the rear wall (similar to the excellent subtitles for Hindemith’s Ein Landarzt at the GSMD in June 2015. A gentle nod to alienation had singers sitting at the sides of the stage, even when not taking “crowd” roles. In keeping with some recent stagings of Shakespeare, the cast (young and and mostly recent members of Glyndebourne Festival Chorus) was all male; though with no attempt in the female roles at femininity other than in the external guise – quite different in approach from the “authentic” all-male cast for Twelth Night at the Globe and also from modern readings such as Propeller Theatre Company’s production of Henry V.

Huffman had shortened the play by excluding the witches, which placed a stark focus on human flaws and greed as explanations for the tragedy. More puzzlingly, and causing some confusion in the audience around me, Malcolm’s final words in the play after Macbeth’s death were reset for Macbeth to sing, being hailed as King of Scotland himself. The music here switched genre into an Adams-y set of major chord arpeggios, but given that the remainder of the play had been adapted “straight” there seemed no particular logic for this altered ending.

Ed Ballard was thoroughly secure through the vocal range of his large title role, conveying a brooding menace by careful shading of the voice rather than any histrionics. John Mackenzie-Lavansch set a mood of authority from the start as Duncan, making one wish that the librettist had kept him alive too. Aidan Coburn bravely eschewed the use of head voice for the high-lying role of Lady Macbeth; while the tone coarsened slightly, it was dramatically consistent with the staging. Jeremy Bines and the small group of players from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, were superlative in maintaing the pace and balance.

If there’s a slight lack of enthusiasm, it’s that even with the shortening of the play, too much felt crammed in to allow the music room to breath and develop. As such, the music often seemed held in check and yet stretched slightly thin. Both the composer and librettist have talked about this current work being an initial version for a full-length opera and maybe the extra length would do more justice to their creative talents.