Prom 39: An Odd Mix

Carmen Suite (excerpts)
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 18 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What a peculiar programme! Where the original Proms prospectus promised us a first half of “Spanish postcards”, the programme booklet came up with the more plausible explanation of a gypsy theme – until Leonidas Kavakos muddied the waters with his encore of guitar music, Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra as transcribed for solo violin! Either way, it didn’t make much sense to follow this miscellany with the archetypal Soviet symphony, and orchestra and conductor had to work hard to make sense of it all.

Making his second appearance at this year’s Proms, Rodion Shchedrin was represented by the music for which he is best known in the West, not perhaps the most imaginative choice. Like Shostakovich, Shchedrin kept his modernism within officially approved bounds during the Soviet period, preferring to operate from inside the establishment, and this has led some commentators to accuse him of superficiality. It’s a charge that Carmen Suite does nothing to dispel, for all that it continues to hold the stage as a ballet. In a more pointed – or perhaps just more pointedly vulgar – account, these deliberately tacky and provocative excerpts might have made a slightly different impact. As it was, in eschewing the sort of easy laughs that Rozhdestvensky used to coax from the Arena, Slatkin made things difficult for himself: the polished string phrasing and elegant finish he sought were arguably at odds with the material. I was left feeling as much puzzled as amused.

To some ears, Ravel’s Tzigane is less a tribute to Bartók than another dose of unmitigated kitsch, and an affectatious Kavakos, best known for his recording of the Sibelius concerto in its original version, did not do quite enough to hold the piece together. Kavakos came into his own in the showily brilliant if superficial Zigeunerweisen, defying the by-now-stifling heat to surmount all its technical challenges and also produce rich tone from the G string. Why don’t we see more of him? Probably because he looks like a bank manager!

There is no one way to conduct Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The first question its interpreters have to consider is just how serious a work of art it is. Is it a tragic, Beethovenian epic à la Shostakovich, or a cynical, amoral orchestral showpiece? Should it be tight and symphonic – a contemporary ’Eroica’ – or rather discursive and theatrical – another Battle Symphony or Stalins Sieg? Taking a leaf out of Shostakovich’s book, the first movement is more ’Andante’ than ’Allegro’ (how much more is for the conductor to decide), although the second subject, marked poco più mosso, has to be more flowing. The conductor can either juggle tempos so as to make the music seem seamless or revel in the awkward corners.

In his own recent Prom performance, Valery Gergiev thrilled many by pressing coarsely forward. Leonard Slatkin, as in his 1984 Saint Louis recording, takes a different line, attempting to coax lyricism from the BBCSO, an orchestra more noted for its bright timbre and quick-witted response to the unfamiliar. Speeds were unfailingly natural, the music-making entirely unforced. So what’s the problem? Only an intermittent lack of adrenaline that can leave detail and rhythm under-projected. The slow movement raised the stakes with Slatkin taking special care over the rhetorical processional at its heart, never allowing the ambient warmth of the venue to obscure details of string articulation that other conductors miss, and finding real depth of feeling too. The ’Finale’, which followed without a break, was also successful, nostalgic at first, and then comparatively light-hearted until the brutalization of the material in its closing stages. On this occasion, alas, the sheer breadth of the Albert Hall stage led to some co-ordination problems: the minatory drum strokes were not quite in sync with the harried strings. An underwhelming experience albeit a thoroughly musical one.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Thursday, 22 August, at 2 o’clock

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