tue 20/11/2018

Prom 69, Skride, Boston SO, Nelsons / Proms at Cadogan Hall 8, Berlin Philharmonic Soloists review - sophisticated limits | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 69, Skride, Boston SO, Nelsons / Proms at...Cadogan Hall 8, Berlin Philharmonic Soloists review - sophisticated limits

Prom 69, Skride, Boston SO, Nelsons / Proms at...Cadogan Hall 8, Berlin Philharmonic Soloists review - sophisticated limits

Sleek Shostakovich rarely terrifies, while reticence limits Ravel in the afternoon

Andris Nelsons in less restrained mood at the Sunday afternoon PromChris Christodoulou/BBC

Crazy days are here again – many of us are lucky not to have been born when the last collectve insanity blitzed the world – and nothing in Shostakovich seems too outlandish for reality. On the other hand, there's a growing movement to liberate his symphonic arguments from rhetoric and context. It has a point in proving that these mighty structures, even when they seem as chaotic as that of the gargantuan Fourth Symphony, stand by themselves without necessary reference to the times in which they were composed. But in a performance like last night's from Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in their second Prom of the season, there's the danger, as well as the fascination, that what should be monstrous becomes elegantly scherzoid.

That was how the first movement began: crisp and energetic rather than a parade of toppling masses. The semi-dead zones between the welters were sophisticated, with pointillist touches from harps and wind, but lacking in ominous atmosphere. Is the Boston Symphony too sleek a band to get its hands dirty? It certainly wasn't afraid to do so under Nelsons in Mahler's Sixth on their last visit, and, according to Boyd Tonkin's review on theartsdesk, in the same composer's Third on Sunday. But he seems to treat this ever-fascinating deconstruction of the Mahlerian blueprint with more detachment, keeping the left hand which so often swoops and soars firmly under control, or on the score, beating tautly with the right.

The earth-scorching string fugue that ought to set our hair standing on end at the centre of the movement seemed merely an exercise in rapid-fire virtuosity; the scherzo remained an exercise in focused sonorities rather than an eerie purgatory, at least until the brief percussion whirrings and clickings which snap it shut. With the finale, Nelsons and the Bostoners seemed to have more to say, their gleaming gauziness brought beguilingly into play for the odd little stream of music-hall dances which try in vain to distract from the brass's power to obliterate. The numb C minor coda was impressively done; the silence from a previously rather restless audience held at the end.

Baiba SkrideNimble elegance was more of an asset in Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium, effectively a concerto for violin, strings, harp and percussion. It's a much more effective "serious" work – despite its title – than his three symphonies, and it needed a violinist as alert and charming to her orchestral colleagues as Nelsons' fellow Latvian Baiba Skride (pictured above by Marco Borggreve). Hers is not a big sound, and it struggled against the often dense orchestration of Berg's Violin Concerto in Nelsons' inaugural concert with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra earlier this year – the Bernstein would have been a more appropriate occasion piece – but she drew us into the dream, notably so in the hushed love-adagio of "Agathon". Elsewhere solo dialogues with strings and percussion were razor-sharp; the entertainment never outstayed its welcome for a second.

At lunchtime the Berlin Philhamonic, trailing clouds of glory after its total triumphs with Principal Conductor Designate Kirill Petrenko, left behind some of its star players for the last of this season's Cadogan Hall Proms (and they could surely have actually let those who were still queueing for returns just before the start stand upstairs – these have never been "Proms" in the proper sense). The miracle of the hour was Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp; you wouldn't have thought it was possible for a viola to echo the sound of the flute, but Amihai Grosz and Emmanuel Pahud worked as one against the shot silk of harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet.

There were some token nods in the direction of Lili Boulanger, who died 100 years ago this year at the tender age of 24, a hugely promising rather than a fully-fledged composer despite the claims currently being made; her Nocturne made an elegiac start, but both that and the slight Three Pieces for piano offer stock reliance on the mystery of the whole tone scale. At any rate Maja Avramović and Alasdair Beatson could not have been more responsive in their attempts to capture the evanescent.

Berlin lunchtime PromBeatson, a Scot, was the only outsider, but the other seven soloists remind us that "the Berliners" is rather a misleading term, with representatives from Serbia, Japan, Israel, Austria, Switzerland and France, the Francophones being in the majority, appropriately enough for most of the programme. Last featured composer in the Cadogan's series of commissions to honour the centenary of votes for women, Nina Šenk, is Slovenian, though a personal identity wasn't apparent in her Baca, based on the process of glass-making; something of the trajectory could be traced in the upward bubblings of the seven instruments, but the eight-minute piece had so many false endings that the inventive final bars had less of an impact than they would have done in an even shorter context.

The seven players reunited for Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, Langlamet's vehicle; it's going to sound disrespectful to her hugely subtle artistry, but Czech Philharmonic and Estonian Festival Orchestra principal harpist Jana Boušková produced a wider spectrum of sounds, and a more passionate engagement, in a Pärnu performance of the work last month. Hail, all the same, to these marvellous musicians; their concerts under Petrenko will go down in Proms history and spoiled us for everything else. Even Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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