Sunday, 15 July 2012

Critic Fever

Last night saw The First Night of the Proms 2012 from the Royal Albert Hall (broadcast on BBC Radio 3), an all-British programme conducted (in homage to the 2012 London Olympics) by a relay of four top British conductors. The programme was:

Mark-Anthony Turnage - Canon Fever (world première)
Delius - Sea Drift
Elgar - Coronation Ode 

(You can, hopefully, listen to the whole concert here - for the next 5 days only!) 

I was amused to read the first two British newspaper reviews of the concert, one from Martin Kettle in the Guardian, the other by Ivan Hewitt in the Daily Telegraph. They have somewhat different takes! (I'll add my own reactions too).

They began by disagreeing over Canon FeverIH was underwhelmed by M-AT's new anti-fanfare, which he said "may well be an exuberant technical tour-de-force on paper - as the programme note insisted – but it seemed disappointingly unfocused in the Albert Hall’s resonant acoustic." MK, however, was delighted, calling it "a saucy piece, instantly likeable and utterly appropriate to the occasion. It sounded like a schoolyard chant set to music."  (Listening via the internet the performance didn't seem unfocussed to me. It was spot on. The piece - punchy, a bit jazzy, dissonant, energetic - certainly lived up to its title, being full of audible canons whose short phrases piled on so closely behind each other to suggest feverishness. It didn't set my head spinning though, or set my world on fire. If you are unfamiliar with M-AT's music, this extract from Hammered Out will give you an idea of the side of it represented by Canon Fever.)

They both liked the Elgar Cockaigne Overture, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. (This was their one main point of agreement and I'm with both of them here. Great piece, beautifully played). 

IH felt that "soloist Bryn Terfel was only intermittently on form" during Delius's Sea-Drift, whose "transcendental setting of Walt Whitman" was, according to MK, "sung with incisive clarity by Terfel." Hope Bryn reads the Guardian! (I definitely thought Bryn's performance was fine though his voice did sound a bit strained at times).

As for Tippett's Suite, well, compare these:
MK: What a dated piece it sounds now, a relic of the time when high-minded politically progressive composers thought they could forge a national musical style based on traditional folk tunes lightly spiced with modernism. Brabbins did his best, but it all sounds maddeningly quaint now, the musical equivalent of men in tights declaiming Shakespeare in fruity tones.
IH: Much the best playing of the evening came in Michael Tippett’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles. The gravely beautiful Carol with its lovely horn-and-violins trio was so beautifully turned the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
(I completely disagree with MK's rant. I think he loads a heck of a lot of baggage onto a lovely piece.)

As for the Elgar Coronation Ode, well, it was yet another sharp difference of opinion:
IH: So far the evening was on an upward curve. But for me it plummeted back down again with Elgar’s Coronation Ode, with its tub-thumping patriotic verse and soulful appeals to the Pax Brittanica. To take it one really has to be in tongue-in-cheek, flag-waving, Last Night mode. Listening to it in stone-cold sobriety, with not a flag in sight, felt distinctly uncomfortable. 
MK: And so, via an extended and unusually full version of Elgar's often revised Coronation Ode of 1902, a work that is more than a curiosity, with the chorus rising to the occasion, to Land of Hope and Glory. Sarah Connolly tackled this far less relentless version of the great tune with total authority, with Gardner trying and sometimes succeeding in bringing out the score's poignancy.
(I so want to be with MK here but, unfortunately, Elgar's Coronation Ode is not one of his more consistently inspired pieces and not even the finest performance can bring out strengths that aren't really there.)

You could always take a listen over the next few days and decide where you stand between these contradictory takes on a single concert. 

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