The Magic Flute … Cantata profana

Die Zauberflöte – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3
Cantata profana
Symphony No.102 in B flat

Richard Goode (piano)

Nicholas Phan (tenor) & Ashley Holland (baritone)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 22 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Robertson. Photograph: Michael TammaroA mixed bag here, in choice of repertoire and in performance. The heart of this prom was two contrasting works by Bartók, the resolutely secular and rarely performed “Cantata profana”, and the third piano concerto with its second movement marked ‘religioso’. Bartók’s hint at the acceptance of God in the face of his imminent death, perhaps? The Bartók pieces were framed by two staples of the classical repertoire.

Unfortunately the curtain raiser, the Overture to Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” received an insipid performance. Nothing terribly wrong with the playing, but a lack of dramatic impetus and an air of ennui pervaded the seven minutes.

Richard Goode. Photograph: Sascha GusovInspiration was in greater supply for the Bartók piano concerto, especially with Richard Goode in prime form. No fireworks from him; rather a calm, unflustered approach allied to understated virtuosity highlighted the gentleness in the writing. Playing from the score but sounding spontaneous, Goode’s playing was beautifully refined and spacious in the first movement, the odd smudged note a slight distraction. Robertson and the BBCSO responded with an accompaniment of sensitivity. The devotional tone of the slow movement was fully brought out in playing of great poise, time seemingly suspended, the music never dragging, and the ‘night music’ passages were a model of cooperation. The laidback approach in the finale wouldn’t have suited those looking for urgency in the pounding Hungarian dance rhythms, but in the context of Goode’s vision it just about worked. An elegant ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s B flat Partita provided a highly satisfying encore.

Bartók’s “Cantata profana” was previously played at the Proms in 1963. As the title suggests, the work emphasises the human spirit over that of some higher being. It doesn’t get the exposure it deserves primarily because of the technical difficulties it presents, not least the contrapuntal writing for the chorus, influenced by Bach’s passions and canons and the extremely high part for the tenor account for this. That said the music is also highly dramatic and evocative in its depiction of the sounds of the forest and much of the wind-writing inhabits the soundworld of his operatic masterpiece “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”. Sadly, David Robertson and his forces never really got to grips with the work in a performance that lacked bite and atmosphere. The technical demands were coped with but the rawness of the pagan element was missing. Both Ashley Holland and Nicholas Phan (the latter replacing Alan Oke) as father and son respectively were impassioned in their roles. Phan, struggling manfully in the higher passages often sounded strained but this lent an added degree of emotion.

The Haydn symphony was light and springy, rhythmically alert and with a certain leanness to the strings sounding somewhere between a ‘period’ and ‘big band’ performance. The first movement could have done with more drive and urgency but the foretaste of Beethoven that is present was emphasised strongly in the dramatic Adagio where Robertson brought out the gravity of Haydn’s meditation. More wit and sparkle were needed in the concluding movements though despite good orchestral balances and good ensemble.

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