Hammered Out [BBC co-commission with Los Angeles Philharmonic: world premiere]
Violin Concerto, Op.14
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Gil Shaham (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 26 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Shaham, whose Wunderkind years were documented by Deutsche Grammophon, now has his own record label and there is something determinedly individualistic about his generous old-school playing. Intonation can be a problem but he is rarely satisfied with the squeaky-clean efficiency which so often passes muster these days. His approach to the slow movement of the Barber was typically wide-ranging in terms of speed and dynamic, sometimes leaving his brother-in-law’s band struggling to match him. The principal oboe delivered the beautiful main theme in fine style but should not Barber have given this idea to his soloist in a higher register? If the finale disappointed, again that was scarcely the performers’ fault. The work is a tender flower of which more anon. The near-capacity crowd thought it appropriate to clap between movements even so (Shaham rightly treating this as a joke I think) and were rewarded with an extra, the familiar ‘Gavotte en rondeau’ from Bach’s E major Partita (BWV1006).
Part two consisted of the Sibelius symphony which was long his most popular but which now seems to embarrass interpreters. (Critical approbation is so often bestowed upon readings which underplay the rhetorical content of Romantic music that its emotional authenticity can drain away.) With the utterly cogent, sensationally high-voltage LPO Sibelius 2 under Vänskä from January still ringing in the ears, things were always going to be difficult for Robertson, a consistent champion of the Fifth but best-known as a highly skilled generalist. His tempos were generally swift and, as he moved straight on to the slow movement without pause, it was plain that he wanted the work to be heard in one breath. He conducts Beethoven this way too.
Unfortunately the response of the orchestra was nothing special – the BBC Symphony usually sounds jaded by this stage of a Proms season – the want of attack in the strings enfeebled climactic moments. It is difficult to say whether a notably noisy audience would have been more attentive had there been greater intensity in the music-making. To be fair the spirit was there in patches plus a not-unfetching transparency of texture, but when programme-notes disaffirm the nationalistic content of Sibelius’s art and tell you that the slow movement retains the looseness of a symphonic poem it is difficult to avoid such ‘insights’ turning into self-fulfilling prophecies. Uncharacteristically, Robertson allowed the core of the first movement to drift rather at too sluggish a tempo.
The real workout came first, an 11-minute commission shared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In his 50th-birthday year, Mark-Anthony Turnage not only eschews the Knussen-derived subtlety of his early pieces but also jettisons the more reflective and meandering tendencies of his own jazz vein. Instead we have an insistently loud mid-Atlantic mechanism, drawing on the pile-driving implacability of James Brown and 1970s’ funk. In the best of Christopher Rouse’s rock-influenced works (why do we never here those at the Proms?) there is high seriousness and a re-creative fervour. In this respect, Turnage is less ambitious. A composer who certainly knows how to make his music move is here content to jog on the spot with his large orchestra, including two saxophones and bass guitar. The visceral ‘hammered out’ rhythmic patterns would seem to require playing at once maximally tight and idiomatically swung, a problem in the echoing vastness of the Royal Albert Hall. Retro disco lights might have been appropriate but there were cheers from the Arena for David Robertson and his team.
While there can’t be many conductors prepared to champion both Turnage and Boulez, to stand in as chansonnier in H. K. Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!” and to tackle the great icons of the standard repertoire, this was not Robertson’s finest hour. The programme as a whole, attractive on paper, didn’t work well in practice. The Barber, which might have been thought to offer sonic balm after Turnage’s urban soundscape, felt inconsequential and the breezy effect of the Sibelius fell short of what the music needs.