Saturday, 1 August 2009

Stravinsky, Mendelssohn Reformation Prom 20 2009

That's Leonid Massine in the first performance of Stravinsky's ballet Pulcinella in 1920. Set by Picasso, stark, angular blocks of colour. When will the penny drop that modernism has been around for 100 years ? and that it drew energy from non-mainstream, often non-western roots ?

In the case of Pulcinella, even Stravinsky was taken aback when Diaghilev asked him to write something based on Pergolesi, quite off the beaten track in those days. Baroque was like an alien form. At this Prom, we heard the full version, complete with voices, rather than the better known suite. It felt more like an opera than a ballet, which was interesting.

For one thing, it put into context Stravinsky's later ventures in stylized classicism (as opposed to real classicism) Like The Rake's Progress, Pulcinella is experimental, a way of breathing new life into old forms, not old forms revived. Entering late, without having checked what was on, at first I thought "What?" Not baroque but some strange new variant. Secondly, it was a reminder of how people really heard the music of the past in days before performance was fixed by recording. Recently, I posted a clip here of Nadia Boulanger plonking away raucuosly at Monteverdi. As a very young man, William Christie was invited to meet her, but waylaid by one of her entourage, indignant that he wanted to play harpsichord instead of piano or full organ, like Madame did. Period aesthetics ? No way! Just as well he didn't get to play for her, and followed his own muse.

So Stravinsky's trombone and trumpets most certainly sound more wild Stravinsky than baroque. And those wayward rhythms ! The condensed, clear orchestration let the music romp along briskly. Brindley Sherratt (recently a wonderful Pimen in Boris Gudonov at the ENO) carrying the bass part with sure footed fleetness. Andrew Staples and Karen Cargill good support.

Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor is very familiar and Nicholas Angelich played it nicely. Pity about the commentary on the radio. By the standards of this year it wasn't bad, but overall Proms presenting has been drifting downmarket so fast it's embarrassing. It's is an aspect of the Proms that will need serious rethinking in future.

Then - Mendelssohn's Symphony No 5, The "Reformation". It's not as magnificent as the Lobgesang, or as engaging as The Italian, so performance can make or break it. Yannick Nézet-Séguin gets wonderfully clean, open textures from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a much underrated ensemble, where each player is almost of soloist standard. Indeed, in terms of precision, clarity and sheer vivid expressiveness, this was better played than the Hall's more grandiloquent Lobegesang the previous evening. Of course smaller orchestras can do animated better, but this was sharper in every way.

Nézet-Séguin's new haircut makes him look older but he still conducts with electric energy: this Reformation was so lucid it shone with conviction. The quote from Bach's Ein' feste Burg is unser Gott is there for a purpose, and this conductor knows why. For Mendelssohn the Reformation was a triumph over medieval superstition. It was also the birth of a fierce, clean "German" spirit, forged through fire. The Reformation was won only after years of war and social change. That's why "Our God is an unassailable fortress". Mendelssohn knew only too well that Bach and his predecessors like Heinrich Schutz didn't take their faith for granted. Wagner may not have cared a stuff about Luther, but it is from this "brave new world" he found his inspiration. No wonder he nicked the Dresden Amen for Parsifal.

So Nézet-Séguin and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are on the right track, making this Reformation sound like an act of courage and faith. No compromise ! No waffle !

Lately, I've been pondering about Mendelssohn's religious and social ideas, listening to Paulus, for example, and wondering "why" Elijah, not Jesus. It's a huge, fascinating field to explore, because the ideas go back a long way, to the Prussian Enlightenment, to Kant, Hegel.... and Moses Mendelssohn. We owe those guys. It should keep me busy for years.. Others of course will have a huge headstart !

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