The Tale of the Stone Flower, Op.118 [selections]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Christian Blackshaw (piano)
Rebecca Evans (soprano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 10 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Whether it was the combination of Beethoven and Mahler or the fact that Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic are currently hot news, there was an absolutely full house.
The programme opened promisingly with three excerpts from Prokofiev’s final ballet, The Stone Flower, which was continuing to occupy him at the time of his death. (By a most ironic coincidence, Prokofiev died in Moscow on the same day in 1953 as his nemesis, Stalin. Friends carried the composer’s body six blocks because no cars were available in the moment of panic that followed Stalin’s death.) By comparison with Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella, The Stone Flower is hardly known. However, Noseda and the orchestra have recently recorded it (for Chandos) and on the evidence of this taster, it should be well worth hearing, the three excerpts here being played with verve and precision, the orchestra straining enthusiastically at the leash but also where appropriate playing with sensitivity. The first oboe in particular contributed seductively to the central Gypsy Dance.
By another of those curious coincidences, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto featured at the Proms on ’9/11’ two years ago. Almost to the day, Christian Blackshaw and a reduced orchestra gave it with chamber-music delicacy. Blackshaw was a Curzon pupil – indeed he gave a recital dedicated to Curzon’s memory at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last September – and some of Curzon’s own qualities were apparent here. Blackshaw’s playing was at once poetic and understated with care for the quality of sound produced. He has never quite made it into the upper echelon – perhaps his interpretations are a little too self-effacing and pliant – yet his musicianship is thorough and non-interventionist, rather like being with a friend who does not need to raise his voice in order to make a point.
The concerto’s slow movement was particularly successful, Noseda obtaining a weight and attack from the strings which had been lacking in the first movement, as well as playing of hushed intensity at the close; the Finale was playful and non-pressured.
Two criticisms relating to the orchestral sound. Although it may have come across more satisfactorily on the broadcast, it is dangerous to reduce the string band too far in a hall the size of the Albert Hall – there were problems of balance with the brass and wind. Secondly, the trumpets and horns were physically separated from each other – some twenty feet apart – and led to poor ensemble.
Mahler Four may be the World viewed from a child’s perspective – if so, he or she was a very sophisticated child, one with a wicked sense of humour in setting interpretative snares for the unwary conductor, especially in the first movement. Rattle, Elder and now Noseda, to name only the last three conductors I’ve heard in this piece, have all fallen into the twin traps which lurk behind this movement’s seemingly innocent exterior. In the first place they have failed to establish a clear base speed (what Mahler terms Tempo 1) to which to return after the music’s various digressions. In the second, they all misread Mahler’s copious instructions delineating the ’character’ of the music – Frisch (Fresh), Breit gesungen (Broadly sung) – as if they were tempo markings. The dangers become clear when there are twelve such markings in the first 60 bars alone. Without a recognisable base tempo, the music is pulled hither and thither and exists from moment to moment. So it was here. Nothing hung together. There was also some notably insensitive horns – are conductors now so ’New Age’ as to be afraid to quell over-enthusiastic brass?
That said, the two middle movements fared very much better, the ’Death’s Ländler’ second rightly taken “without haste”. The sublime slow movement flowed and was tenderly played, with some especially sensitive oboe phrasing, again, from Jennifer Galloway. The increases and decreases of speed of this movement are all marked ’subito’ (sudden) – and work even better if the gear change is absolutely abrupt, yet both movements spun their magic.
Normally the ’Child’s Vision of Heaven’ finale follows on immediately – it cries out to be played attacca, especially given the Prommers’ propensity to applaud between every movement; here we had a long pause, which dissipated the atmosphere. Soloist and orchestra seemed oddly out of sorts and might have been performing different music, so little did their concept of the piece appear to overlap. Rebecca Evans’s voice is not inappropriate but synchronisation between her and the orchestra was frequently tenuous; one was reminded of Beecham’s bon mot “Do remember to stay in touch”.
- Radio 3 re-broadcast on Friday 12 September at 2.00 p.m.
- BBC Proms