tue 23/04/2024

Prom 45, Capuçon, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Nott - scintillating new era for Swiss magicians | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 45, Capuçon, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Nott - scintillating new era for Swiss magicians

Prom 45, Capuçon, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Nott - scintillating new era for Swiss magicians

Top British artistic director in Geneva gives us the Ansermet tradition plus

Jonathan Nott - initiating a new golden age in GenevaAll images by Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Who is the greatest British conductor in charge of a major orchestra? It's subjective, but my answer is not what you might expect. Jonathan Nott has done all his major work so far on the continent.

He left the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in excellent shape to another of the world's best, Jakub Hrůša; and now he is, as we learned from two long-term players in the Proms Plus talk, liked and respected across the board at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Continuity with the first major Swiss orchestra founded by Ernest Ansermet 100 years ago was underlined last night in Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, Ansermet's three strongest suits. A crucial Ligeti encore simply brought promise of what else Nott can do in Geneva.

Does anything remain of that French-Swiss timbre which still comes across so distinctively on Ansermet's 314 Decca recordings with the orchestra (a further 624 broadcasts are lodged in the Suisse Romande archive, awaiting further dissemination)? Possibly in the bright, cutting-edge brass and the supple wiriness of the strings, though the woodwind is vastly more sophisticated than in Ansermet's time.

It seems the orchestra found its feet quickly in the tricky Albert Hall acoustics during rehearsals; Jeux, Debussy's enigmatic ballet score for Diaghilev, rippled and glinted, drawing you in to the mystery with flecks of startling colour and much more sweep to the dance rhythms than usual in this tricky score (who would guess from its eastern promise that it featured Nijinsky as a tennis player in naughty games with two ladies?). The dissolve after a persuasive climax was as deft as the one achieved by Ludovic Morlot with the CBSO in Debussy's "Sirènes" the previous evening. Capucon and Nott in Ravel at the PromsWhen the tally of great concerto (or in this case, perhaps, concertante) performances in 2018 comes to be made, the partnership of super-subtle violinist Renaud Capuçon with Nott and the Swiss players (pictured above) will be right at the top of the list. In 2013 Yan Maresz achieved the near impossible: to score Ravel's Violin Sonata as magically as the master orchestrator himself would have done. Keeping it light and coruscating, Maresz lets the soloist duet at times with single wind instruments, substituting the percussive edge of the piano with something infinitely more ethereal in the central Blues (no "optional washboard" that I heard last night).

Cue for scoring here surely comes from Ravel's "Five O'Clock Foxtrot" for Wedgwood teapot and china cup in L'enfant et les sortilèges, to feature in Saturday's Prom, and the rippling clarinets in the finale are surely of the same provenance. Capuçon never abused a star soloist's privilege, his moto perpetuo in the finale simply offsetting more orchestral wonders, and his generous encore with the orchestra – Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs – placed the supple inward beauty of the melody first and any showmanship second.

Stravinsky's Petrushka is not an easy score to manipulate in Albert's Colosseum, and its opening fairground buzz could have done with more cut from where I was sitting, especially since Nott, like Ansermet, prefers the thicker textures of the 1910 original. But the wistful ditty based on a song about Sarah Bernhardt's wooden leg – Stravinsky didn't know the source and had to pay royalties – gave the first indication of a poignant freedom which was to give "Petrushka's Cell" a novel space for the sad puppet's self-communings to breathe (with the best work I've heard here from the solo pianist, uncredited in the programme). Jonathan NottThe Moor's lolloping courtship of the ballerina, brittle-bright in a flawless trumpet solo, had quicker mood-shifts, and Nott found a rare momentum in the first of the final fairground divertissement numbers (after all Stravinsky's urban song source here, "Along the Peter Road", is no slouch). But the pathos returned in eloquent high style for Petrushka's death (what was it that the percussionist so theatrically did for the final flump, marked in the revised score "hold tambourine close to the floor and let it fall flat"?)

Following the perfectly-placed final pizzicato note, the enigma that Diaghilev disdained – he would have preferred an applause-drawing forte – was brushed aside, after an enthusiastic reception, with the most brilliant of encores. That was Ligeti mania at the start, surely, but then all the fast showmanship, tziganery tinged with the mania of the Hungarian friss, or fast section of a two-mood national dance? It turned out to be the finale of his early (1951) Concert Românesc. May Nott's further adventures with his Swiss orchestra be as dazzlingly original as what Ligeti went on to do – it already sounds as if they will be.


Well, Sir Mark E., Sir Simon R., and Edward G. are hardly slouches with their respective orchestras. But I have seen JN once in Chicago, and I can see why you would like his work. Interesting that you got to write this TAD review after taking part in the Proms pre-talk (you did declare your interest in the review, to be fair). I had heard about Ansermet's anti-12 tone polemic from a Decca CD liner note, but I didn't know about the nasty subtext that you mentioned (which is pointed out on Ansermet's wikipedia article). It does remind one of Knappertsbusch's comment about Richard Strauss to the effect that "I take my hat off to Strauss the musician. I put it back on for Strauss the man." I didn't know about the OSR's move in a few years from the Victoria Hall. Normally, a hall with a lively acoustic should be good for audiences, at least. I'm thinking of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, which apparently was great for orchestra musicians in rehearsal, but is dead as a doornail for audiences.

No slouches, indeed, but musicians have reservations about all three, and I haven't heard a bad word said about Nott - the perfect all-rounder.

Delicate question about reviewing and participating - though my task there was to discuss Ansermet's recordings (we only heard that two of the OSR players had managed to get out of the concurrent rehearsal and participate at the eleventh hour). Had any of our other reviewers been available, I would have passed the task to them. But they weren't, and this was a Prom which couldn't pass uncovered.

There's a devastating quotation from an article Ansermet wrote about Schnabel elsewhere: 'he may have been a great pianist but one always had the impression from his style of playing that he belonged to the Jewish people because he manipulated music the way the Jews manipulated money'. Ouch.



Well, give it time, and reservations about any conductor will appear in due course ;) . Actually, at that Chicago concert, I overheard the now-retired past CSO principal horn player in conversation with a concertgoer about the concert, which featured Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist with JN: Concertgoer: "Wasn't he great?" CSO past principal horn (PPN): "You mean the soloist, right?" Concertgoer: "No, the conductor." CSO PPN: "You mean the soloist, right?" Of course, given that said past CSO PPN stayed several years longer than he should have, that taints his judgment. (There are other issues about him as a person, but let's not go there.) Regarding EA's unfortunate anti-Semitism, he wasn't the only one, sad to say. I understand that Stravinsky also had a streak of anti-Semitism in him (not to mention Chopin). More proof, as if we needed it, that great artists are not always good people. But it was a nice gesture of the OSR players to make an appearance. I assume that the pre-Prom talks are still in the student union a hop, skip and a jump from the RAH, as opposed to the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall across the road. The student union struck me as quite stuffy regarding ventilation, and air circulation. On reviewing and participating, the most extreme instance of a conflict of interest from the Proms that I've seen was 8 years ago, where Edward Seckerson wrote the liner notes for the program booklet, and subsequently reviewed that Prom for The Independent.

You are too cynical. Several years on, the BBC Symphony Orchestra remains undivided (to the best of my knowledge) about Sakari Oramo - they all seem to adore him. A fine and modest musician may well please everyone.

I don't see a serious conflict of interests unless the reviewer has interviewed the artist/s before the performance in a publicity piece. And I could name an example where the interviewer actually carried over a phrase about the singer in question's characterisation from what the singer said to what he purported to think about the performance (it was too specific to be a coincidentce). In our tiny, poorly or not-at-all-remunerated and ever-shrinking musical world, though, it's difficult not to multitask as note-writer, lecturer and critic.

Hands up if the name Orchestre de la Suisse Romande triggers in your mind ‘ffrr’ and ‘ffss’ ? OK, you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, which means you are under 50; as part of your musical education, google those abbreviations and open a window onto some of the best sounding recordings ever made - by Decca in the 1950s and 60s. However, as several contributors point out the orchestra then never sounded as good as this and indeed, it wasn’t clear why Decca made so many recordings with an orchestra which was, at that time, not a patch on many other European orchestras. I seem to recall that, towards the end of his life, Decca did start recording Ansermet with the LSO - the best of both worlds … his huge knowledge of the sort of repertoire to be heard in this splendid concert, and an orchestra worthy of him. Don’t the OSR sound marvellous now? Thanks for the concert.

The more I listen to those vintage OSR recordings - agreed about the sound, especially in the early 1960s - the more I think it's about esprit, Geist, a rapport which Ansermet couldn't establish so quickly with other orchestras. And I do think something special resulted from a hand-picked orchestra not over-familiar with Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn - those interpretations are very special cases.

Thanks David, I'll give some of the OSR / Ansermet recordings another careful listen; the Stravinsky series and then some of the French music will be my starting place.

I can't urge you too strongly to try the Haydn 22nd and Beethoven Seventh. Chabrier and much of the Ravel thereafter.

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