Scènes de ballet
Bassoon Concerto in B flat, K191
Karen Geoghegan (bassoon)
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: 5 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This fourth visit by the BBC Philharmonic to this year’s Proms was the first to feature its Chief Conductor, Gianandrea Noseda. There was no obvious theme linking the three works, although the season’s ongoing cycle of Stravinsky’s ballets accounted for the first, Scènes de ballet. The 15-minute piece was commissioned in 1944 for inclusion in a musical revue that ran for 183 performances on Broadway, making it, for a time, one of Stravinsky’s most-heard compositions. Noseda drew vivid and affectionate playing from the orchestra, emphasising the work’s richness of invention. The warmth of the concluding bars was particularly memorable, belying the reputation of coolness frequently associated with the works of Stravinsky’s neo-classical period.
Mozart was circa 18 when he composed his Bassoon Concerto. It was given an expressive and unaffected interpretation by Karen Geoghegan, currently a third-year undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, but more famously the runner-up in BBC2’s “Classical Star”. Noseda provided a stylish accompaniment, notable for the clarity of the strings and for the care in which the oboe and horn were integrated into the texture. Spirited accounts of the outer movements enclosed a serene Andante ma adagio, a spell broken by applause.
Such refinement and attention to detail somehow eluded the account of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Noseda’s moderate tempo for the opening (marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo) felt spot on, but the recapitulation was subject to some rather prominent tempo changes, indicated in the score but surely intended to be more adroitly observed. A similar phenomenon was noticeable in terms of instrumental detail, with the side drum and tam-tam in the first movement, pizzicato strings in the Andante, and celesta in the finale just some of the elements given undue prominence.
What was intentional, however, was Noseda’s decision to place the off-stage cowbells in the first movement and the bells and cowbells in the finale high up in the hall opposite the orchestra. This was an unhelpful effect in a venue in which many of the seats face sideways rather than forward, and resulted in many bemused glances from those unfamiliar with the score. In terms of middle-movement order, Noseda opted for scherzo first and slow one second, reflecting Mahler’s original conception of the symphony before he changed his mind two years later at the premiere in Essen.
Despite some vivid playing from the BBC Philharmonic, not least first violin, horn and E flat clarinet, the delivery was undermined by a general lack of cohesiveness and the occasional fluffed note. The second half of the finale managed to build a genuine sense of thrust, but it was difficult to escape the feeling that a clearer sense of direction and some more rehearsal time might have allowed a more convincing reading.