Prom 63: Post-modern Tchaikovsky

Color [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Midori (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Older listeners may continue to think of him as an accomplished pianist and younger viewers will notice the resemblance to Patrick Stewart late of the Starship Enterprise, but tonight’s conductor is one of the most sought after properties on the international circuit. Indeed, the energy and focus of his music-making is currently sweeping all before it – and compensating for any lack of interpretative originality. It was certainly a surprise to find him slotting in a return visit to the Proms – he has no previous association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – but who better to galvanise that sometimes lacklustre band into positive results in the standard repertoire?

The only non-standard offering came from Marc-André Dalbavie whose Color was written for Eschenbach’s Orchestre de Paris. On this evidence, Dalbavie is another young composer who has moved on from the rigorous world of Boulez via the Spectralists Grisey and Murail to stake out an iridescent territory of his own. What he does in Color is to construct a static, unmistakably French-sounding sculpture that nevertheless begins to key into conventional (or should that be American?) expectations of developmental concert fare, echoing what a composer like Saariaho (with a not dissimilar background) has achieved. “An atonal piece with tonal chords” is how Dalbavie himself describes his shimmering, three-stage circle of sound. Around twenty minutes long, and without memorable material as conventionally understood, it nevertheless lives up to its title and does not outstay its welcome.

I was hoping that Samuel Barber’s accessibility might silence the maddeningly intrusive cougher situated behind my right ear. Not so, even when the concerto soloist was a star name: Midori (Goto), once billed as “Little Midori” and now at 30-plus making that difficult transition from Sony Wunderkind to mature artiste. She has had a great career, although Tully Potter, writing in The New Grove, makes no bones about her small tone and bland interpretative manner. It was almost as if she was determined to prove him wrong on this occasion. True, the sound did not carry and the daunting size of the venue did nothing to inhibit her maddening tendency to launch phrases below the threshold of audibility. The ’Finale’ was very neatly done, much assisted by an alert accompaniment. But what sank the performance for me was its insistently rhapsodic style. The first movement, more ’Andante’ than ’Allegro’, repeatedly threatened to grind to a halt, while the long-drawn tempo for the opening paragraph of the slow movement, more ’Largo’ than ’Andante’, made no sense whatever in the context of the movement as a whole however beautifully achieved. There were some breathtaking entries with Midori daringly fining down her tone and eschewing vibrato. Nevertheless, something much more straightforward would have disguised the joins better.

The big question remained. Would Eschenbach’s very positive gesticulation and body language engender a special performance of the Tchaikovsky? Technically this was first rate, with a taut, bullish edge that often comes with conductors who start as pianists and/or percussionists (Rattle comes to mind). The first movement was a heavyweight, full of big tone and careful phrasing. In the second, Eschenbach encouraged the sometimes reticent strings to emote forcefully, even stickily, and there was plenty of upfront articulation from the winds too where required. Nothing was left to chance, the conductor favouring first one section then the other, making counter-melodies almost obsessively clear. The ’Scherzo’ brought a veritable tour de force. Here Eschenbach sometimes refrained altogether from conventional gesturing (very much in the Bernstein manner), apparently leaving the pizzicato strings to get on with it, while insisting on penetrating, peasant-like intrusions from the woodwinds. The ’Finale’ had impressive rhythmic definition and considerable verve. Yet one could not say whether the ending was meant to be affirmatory or riven with hysteria or both. It was fast certainly, but one noticed the precise moment at which Eschenbach chose to ratchet up his tempo. Lucid, controlled and keenly projected as it was, I felt this account lacked emotional warmth. Perhaps though this is as good as it is going to get in our post-modern age. The players deserve high praise, above all perhaps Julie Price’s ultra-sensitive, seamless bassoon.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday, 13 September, at 2 o’clock

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