Prom 20 – Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark [UK premiere] *
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony 5 in E minor, Op.64

Nelson Goerner (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
H K Gruber *
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 2 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was the BBC Philharmonic’s night. The works were demanding. The playing was accomplished and professional – ranging from pin-point control to grand, brass-resounding jubilation.

H K Gruber loped to the podium – and the orchestra stood up in acclaim. I saw the musicians do that at Proms 2000 when Gruber conducted Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny. I respect Gruber deeply. I wish I liked his music even more than I do. Dancing in the Dark has two movements. One is ruminative, the other unsmilingly hectic. In the first, inexplicable, disturbing sounds break into the serenity of a magical timeless night – Mahler 7, Debussy, Berg, AND Gruber. I long to hear this music again with its prolonged, funereal fox trot. After a cadenza for twig-brushes, the second part speeds up – relentlessly, mindlessly, and repetitively. I see Gruber beaming with glee over this unfriendly music. The playing – and conducting – was exemplary.

Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has an enjoyable, bony flamboyance. It is self-consciously ’modern’ for its time – but accessible. It has recognisable melody and virtuosity. Moreover, it accommodates anyone with a low concentration span by making spectacular, awakening changes in style, technical demands and speeds. Nelson Goerner played with aplomb – a virtuoso rendition, lyrical when needed, unfazed by the occasional moments of utter simplicity – and giving great pleasure.

Vassily Sinaisky is Russian, who learned under Kondrashin and was chief conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic until 1996. Were we to hear a truly ’Russian’ performance of Tchaikovsky’s much played symphony?

The most splendid feature was the sustained joyous end to the last movement – with jubilant echoes of ’1812’ and Russian Orthodox ritual. The strings were at full pelt and the brass was on shining display. (Who’ll write an essay on Tchaikovsky’s joy?)

Several Western stylistic mannerisms appeared, though. The introduction to the opening movement is marked ’Andante’. So why play it at a grinding ’Lento’ – ill-fitting the ’Allegro con anima’ waiting in the wings? Why accentuate ’feminine endings’ – those phrases that droop and sag – while choking-off the buoyant ones, thereby minimising Tchaikovsky’s surging vitality? Further, why split a movement into small disparate sections (instantly and adroitly picked up by the orchestra, be it said) jerking from one mood to the next. Have we not grown beyond the notion of Tchaikovsky the gifted simpleton, only capable of writing for ballet? And what an ungracious, non-lilting third movement waltz!

The slow movement drove me spare despite the beautiful playing. From time to time, I was close to tears – not from the NOW of verging on mawkish lament, but from a memory of Furtwängler breaking my heart when truly facing up to the timeless desolation of this symphony’s agonised core (a Music & Arts CD of a 1952 Turin Radio performance).

All these tactics undermined the potency of the composer and the music. There was plenty of vigour and commitment in this performance – but, overall, I found it rousingly soulless.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 6 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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