Scarcely better than a first run-through

The second half of the concert was given over to a truly dire performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Generally speaking, even boring performances can be interesting from the point of view of divining why they are so dull, but this one charted new realms of ennui. Tension was slack, phrasing unrefined, atmosphere negligible. Degrees of light and shade, together with other subtle details of harmony and emphasis that give the score life, went for nought. Key points of emotional frisson were missed. Moments of crucial structural significance were glossed over, the build-up of excitement towards the finale coming across as distinctly matter-of-fact. Lacking as it did any assertive or communicative ideas on interpretative strategy, the performance was scarcely better than a first run-through.
Geoffrey Norris tells it like it is in his Telegraph review of David Robertson's Aug 26 Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Quite rightly Norris praises the performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's glittering but unmemorable 'Hammered Out' and Gil Shaham's exquisite interpretation of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto in the first half of the Prom. But the worst was certainly left to last. Please note the following are Geoffrey Norris' words, not mine - phrasing unrefined... distinctly matter-of-fact... scarcely better than a first run-through...

Of course musicians, like everyone else, have bad days in the office. But such a level of invective from an established critic is rare. Others may have a different view, but having watched the Prom on BBC 4 TV I can only agree with Geoffrey Norris' review. Could the "dire performance" have been avoided if David Robertson, who is a fine conductor of contemporary music, had been given a more suitable work to conduct? When will the inexorable sad decline of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its absentee chief conductor Jirí Belohlávek be reversed? And have the omnipresent applause between movements and final ovation ever been less appropriate than at this Prom?

It is embarrassing to compare the once-great BBC Symphony Orchestra playing Sibelius with a youth orchestra playing a not dissimilar Rachmaninov symphony. But nevertheless I will, because the comparison is quite simple. Just reverse virtually every pejorative term used by Geoffrey Norris in the review above and you will know how the Suffolk Youth Orchestra played in their recent Snape Prom. Roll on the unblocking of classical music's arteries.

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Anonymous said…
"Stylistic change in music seems to me, however, to be most tightly bound to the life of the institutions which cultivate and present music. The change from chapel and court patronage to that of American universities and Western European radio stations is significant, as is the change from the live public concert or private music-making to broadcasts and recorded media. These changes have contributed mightily to the continued liveliness and variety of music itself (indeed, they made the notion of a renewable music possible.) In this context, it's been somewhat distressing to read the controversy over music in an age of digital technology which has been going on in the recent issues of MusikTexte. The most distressing item in the exchange is a new article "Against the Deinstitutionalization of Music" by C.-S. Mahnkopf, who appears determined to become the Joseph Ratzinger of of new music in his defense and plea for the extension of the present music-institutional landscape. Mahnkopf's ex cathedra statements about new music have been part of the background noise in German new music for some time, but this time the noise level has moved beyond irritation to outright disturbance with his failure to recognize that large institutions inevitably support an ever-smaller variety of music and necessarily put long-tenured bureaucrats into positions of authority over the determination of which music gets made, where and when. The central mission of such institutions inevitably becomes that of sustaining their own lives and accumulating control over any available resources. Equally problematic is Mahnkopf's failure to recognize the importance of private initiatives and alternative institutions to music's liveliness, in that each are willing to risk failure in going forward and — like Phoenixes emerging from their own ashes — are better able to respond to the forces of both success and failure, to regroup, and to reinvent or reform themselves around the particular challenges of new musical ideas. (One readily imagines that Mahnkopf's goal is to set himself up as a central arbitrator of new musical life in Germany, akin to Boulez in France a generation ago, with his inability to recognize that the strength in German post-war new music has largely been its decentralization, which contrasts positively with France's ultra-montane Boulez-led centrism, a definite signal of his intentions.) "
Pliable said…
Er.... yes, quite so.
Pliable said…
The following comment has been published as a separate post -

JB has left a new comment on your post "Scarcely better than a first run-through":

Your comments on the performance of Sibelius 5 seem correct to me. From the opening bars to less than impressive conclusion it was obvious that Robertson had not grasped the epic nature of this work. But why link it to your predictable diatribe against the BBC etc. ? ...
Halldor said…
Every summer we hear this overworked orchestra being flogged into the ground during the Proms.

Yet between us, I'd be willing to bet we could come up with 5-10 youth/amateur orchestras who've never had a Prom, and would set the Albert Hall on fire. While the BBC players took time off to refresh mind and spirit.

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