Friday, 22 July 2011

Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček Prom 9 Elder

With Sibelius, Bartók and Janáček on the programme, Prom 9 could have been explosive. All three composers are noted for their uncompromising independence. Instead, though, Mark Elder and the Hallé presented the Prom with a nostalgic sheen.  Perhaps I should gave read the programme notes beforehand. "The Russians had no time for Finnish nationalism and made strenuous efforts to kill it off". Which is like saying Masaryk was thrilled by Stalin.

On the other hand until fairly recent times, Sibelius was conducted as if he were a  revamp of Tchaikovsky, whom audiences in the west were far more familar with. Although the Tchaikovsky connection made his music popular, Sibelius was unimpressed, complaining to his friend the conductor Simon Parmet that his music was "distorted" and misunderstood.  How differently Adorno might have thought of Sibelius had he known.

Thus, Elder's shaping of Sibelius Scènes historiques Suite no 2 and the Seventh Symphony was part of a long-standing tradition. Just not the tradition we are used to today. So hearing Elder's Sibelius is like going back in time to a more primeval spring where everything's luscious and peaceful, untroubled by war, independence and dangerous modernity.  One reason Sibelius may have entered the "Silence of Järvenpää" was the realization that he couldn't top the 7th, despite his visions of even more remarkable music. But with Elder, we can forget the future and luxuriate in the loveliness of the landscape, which, arguably, is also integral to what Sibelius was.

Bartók's Piano concerto no 3 is curious because it's so very different from his Concerto no 2, one of the most explosive, passionate pieces of the 20th century. (Listen to Cziffra here, playing in 1956).  András Schiff's playing is sublime, elegantly balanced, yet rich with feeling. When this Prom is televised on Friday and Saturday, watch and see how his face communicates almost as fluently as his hands. Schiff knows where this work stands in Bartók's life and oeuvre. The Adagio religioso in particular sounded deeply sincere and affirmative. Like the Concerto for Orchestra, this piece opens out beyond the folksy "Magyarism", onto new horizons far from war-torn Europe, Maybe the composer is trying to cheer his wife and himself, but Schiff gets a sense of inner repose.

Indeed, Schiff and Bartók proved to be the centrepiece of this entire Prom.  Elder's sunny interpretation of  Sibelius 7 and Janáček Sinfonietta thus had a certain, if unorthodox logic. Again the  BBC  programme notes emphasize the joyous, open-air nature of the Sinfonietta, inspired as it was by a brass band on a happy day.  The highly polished Hallé made the sassy, angular opening sound like a rustic band not too bothered about being fierce. Gemütlich, though that's probably not the most tactful term to use, given what would happen in the Sudetenland (Bohemia) ten years later. Arguably Elder's light-hearted Sinfonietta makes a point, but I would much rather have heard the strident, pungent quirkiness that makes it so characteristcally Janáček.  Daniel Harding's Janáček Sinfonietta at the Barbican also made much of the sophitication in the orchestration, so when the punchy coda came, it burst forth even more exuberantly in comparison. After all, Janáček isn't just celebrating a happy moment, but the spirit behind the occasion - the birth of the Czech nation no less. The composer was far too politically astute to think independence would come easy. Summery as the Sinfonietta is, it isn't genteel, and does need to be performed with reference to its background, even when that background means nothing to non-Czech audiences.

1 comment:

Gavin Plumley said...

Glad to read your response. After a difficult day I decided not to Prom. A genteel Sinfonietta wouldn't have helped.