Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Prom 68 Braunfels Beethoven Tchaikovsky

"Music should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed", a phrase coined by one of my friends. However, Prom 68, with Manfred Honeck and  the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra proved somewhat the opposite. Nice, safe and unchallenging, guaranteed to confirm the comfortable in their comfort. The main relief was Hélène Grimaud's clear sighted intelligence, which lifted Beethoven Piano Concerto no 4 above the realm of feelgood. Pleasant, but interpretively undemanding Tchaikovsky no 5 thereafter. Lots of self-congratulatory chatter on the radio broadcast. Music as social lubricant.

As for music for music's sake? Walter Braunfels Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz (Fantastic appearances on a theme from Berlioz) is a significant work by a significant composer. So what was the point of butchering it by two-thirds? Thius is artistic murder, but for what purpose? The work is based on a single theme from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, where Méphistophélès sings the song of the flea. It lasts but a few moments, but Braunfels examines it with such close forensic detail that he manages no fewer than 12 different variations and takes 50 minutes to do so. Pay attention! Braunfels is trying to tell us something! Instead, we got episodes from the middle sections of the piece, based around  Ruhig, the slowest movement of all, which in the original is a transitional stage, not the main event.Ask yourself, is Méphistophélès being "restful"? Is Braunfels suggesting that Méphistophélès is there to comfort Faust? Of course not. Indeed, Braunfels is warning us to be alert.

So what was the musical logi ? What motivated Honeck, who does know his Braunfels, to authorize this rump? Braunfels's original is so tightly put together that there are hardly any pauses between segments, so it's not as if movements (or mini-movements) can simply be lifted out of context. The most interesting sections were left out. This wasn't Braunfels we were hearing, but a strange curtailment, as if someone, somewhere hates Braunfels so much they must cut out what makes him distinctive. Perhaps a rump of Braunfels is better than nothing at all, but this does the composer a disservice. Braunfels is by no means obscure, even if he's not mainstream. There is no excuse at all for anyone with an interest in this genre not to know who he is. There is a good recording of Phantastische Erscheinungen easily available, so anyone could look it up. (here it is on amazon).

Braunfels's Die Vögel received an ecstatic reception in 1995, when the Lothar Zagrosek recording was released, one of the highest points in the Decca Entartete Musik series. The very fact that LA Opera did a mega highprofile production last year means that Braunfels is not nobody. So why do we get fobbed off with a 15 minute summary ? A bit like playing a few bars from Mussorgsky's Song of the Flea.

I will write about the full Braunfels Fantastic Appearances later and about other Braunfels works like Die Vögel, the Te Deum and Honeck's new recording of Braunfels's major opera Jeanne d'Arc, with his regular European band, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Braunfels was "suppressed" before. There's no reason he should be suppressed yet again.  Please see my earlier post on the Fantastic Appearances HERE.

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