Monday, 3 August 2009

Berlioz, Beethoven and Ben Foskett Prom 24 2009

Getting a commission for the Proms gives a composer the biggest publicity possible. New music has been part of the Proms since the beginning. Though much of it is newly written rather than actually "new", now and again something comes along that's genuinely original and deserves to last. So listen to Ben Foskett's From Trumpet from Prom 24 (2nd August) on repeat broadcast. It's one of the good ones.

Foskett, like Luke Bedford, was a student of Simon Bainbridge, so it's not surprising he's distinctive. He's a favourite of the London Sinfonietta, whose leader is Clio Gould, for whom he wrote his Violin Concerto (for link to the recording, please click HERE) From Trumpet is much more mature, and well structured - a simple cell moving from stasis, filling out texturally. A violin melody enters, and trumpets shatter the line back to the simple rhythm which moves in circulating spirals, through staccato percussion and the lively frolics of woodwinds, gradually returning to stasis, but on a different, more elevated plane.

Having the good fortune to have the piece conducted by Susanna Mälkki helps, too. Mälkki is extremely good. She took over as director of Ensemble Intercontemporain which at last gave her the prominence she merits. When she conducts, you pay attention, because her style is powerfully intelligent. So it's worth preserving what she tells the BBC about why she likes Beethoven's 4th Symphony. Between the mountains of the. 3rd and 5th symphonies, it's "an oasis of beauty". Although the orchestra is modern, her approach is influenced by the articulation of baroque music. "there has been a trend for making Beethoven 'beefy", she says, "but I'm looking for a strength that comes from articulation, instead of massive weight and power. We show the structural rhythms, so that the pillars of architecture are fabulously clear."

So Mälkki invigorates the BBCSO, getting an electrifying performance. Here, the elegance of Haydn meets the intense energy of the modern age. Listen to the way Mälkki keeps the orchestra poised in the third movement before unleashing the final surge. Themes are clearly defined, their development vivid. For all his inventiveness, Beethoven uses simple, basic ideas. Mälkki and the BBCSO make Beethoven 4 shine because they grasp its spontaneous, free spirit.

What's even more remarkable is that Mälkki manages to make Berlioz's Te Deum shine with the similar lucid grace. This Te Deum was written as a blockbuster to end all blockbusters. It was meant to stun audiences into submission, obliterating all else by its showmanship. The Times is fixated on the idea that Proms must start with massive pieces like this, but why? As Beethoven's 4th showed, good music doesn't need to be grotesque. Blockbusters are the exception in music, not the gold standard. It's not necessarily a good thing to blitz out anything that won't fill football stadiums.

Berlioz's Te Deum is wonderfully over the top, and why not? It's fun because it's so utterly audacious, with its massed voices, booming organ, grandiose orchestration. Such things can and do work. Blast after blast about religion as power play, the mass en masse. But is the Te Deum really religious or spiritual? It doesn't matter a bit that Berlioz was an opportunist for whom the humility of Christ meant little. Neither did many potentates. No one needs to believe to write or appreciate religious music. It's enough that they make others believe they believe. But what is really at the heart of this piece, beneath gorging on glory?

Fortunately, Mälkki stops this Te Deum from descending into Party Rally. Her innate intelligence and sense of proportion keep her focussed on it as music, brilliantly engineered for maximum impact. She doesn't let textures blur into unregulated orgy, but keeps the fundamental architecture clean and clear. She sculpts the piece like a giant musical cathedral, whatever or whoever it may really be celebrating. As technique it's a marvel, which Mälkki shows it at its best.


Mark Berry said...

The Berlioz is a strange work: for me, exultant but disquieting. I think you are spot on to ask what is at the core of it. There is a Christian shell but that appears to be all. I certainly find it hard to imagine Berlioz even thinking that he was writing a Christian work, let alone that he succeeded in doing so. Instead, he seems to be attempting a ceremonial piece for the civil religion of the Rousseuvian Enlightenment – or the French Revolution: Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being almost... The Te Deum canticle becomes a vehicle for something distanced and secular. Piety could hardly be more distant; it seems almost to be rejoicing about rejoicing.

How did the BBC SO sound in Berlioz? Of course the orchestra used to play quite a lot under Colin Davis, and to a certain extent Boulez too, but that is quite some time ago.

Doundou Tchil said...

Hi Mark ! The BBCSO sounded fresher under Malkki than I've heard them in ages, even under favourite conductors. She's exceptional, listen to her any chance you get. In a completely different league to Colin Davis, much as I like him. As you know religiosity is often a mask for crass political power games. Berlioz was an opportunist, so it's quite possible he was exploiting the same vein of cynicism for his own reasons. Malkki's good because she doesn't play games and sticks to the musical structure. All good wishes !