thu 20/02/2020

BBC Proms: Graham, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Davis | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Graham, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Davis

BBC Proms: Graham, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Davis

Viennese youth orchestra teams up with ageing conductor in the wild and exotic

Sir Colin Davis did, it’s true, make the Symphony in Three Movements last longer than Stravinsky thought it should. But his slowish tempi in the outer movements were the only aspect of the performance to which the most confirmedly anti-Romantic Stravinskyite could conceivably have objected. Though Sir Colin conducts these days sitting down – or at least perched – and with gesture reduced to a minimum, he relinquishes not one iota of his old discipline.


Sometimes his control might even seem extra-sensory, so sparing is his baton. In the pizzicato movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (another two-times-two-ish sort of work), he even dropped his hands altogether and let the strings get on with it, which they did with exquisite precision. The casual observer could have concluded at this point that the conductor might as well not have been there. But that would have been a big mistake, since coordination isn’t simply a matter of staying together; it also asks the question, what is together, and why?

One can make the same point in another way. More than almost any conductor I can think of, Davis lets the music play itself. But music never plays itself. So, for instance: Tchaikovsky’s slow movement starts with a languid oboe solo, marked semplice, ma grazioso. I like the “but” in that instruction; grace can be simple, yet it implies an element of sophistication. Davis must have told the oboist to leave out the sighs and gasps that are usually automatic in this music, and to play it straight. The effect was remarkable, and led to a superbly balanced performance of the whole movement, richly coloured, fluid, but devoid of emotional bullying.

And this was typical of the whole symphony. To play Tchaikovsky without feeling would be absurd. But to ladle out the feeling makes the music absurd. Tchaikovsky was in many ways a very classically minded composer, with a strong sense of design and a marvellous ear. Both were very much in evidence here. That didn’t mean, though, any lack of drama. The first movement accumulated power by sheer intensity of discourse, and the finale started with such a crash of artillery that several people around me jumped visibly.

The same kind of controlled force was also a feature of the Stravinsky. When he wrote it, in the Forties, the symphony was a return to the violent “Scythian” mode of The Rite of Spring (though we might be spared the rubbish about war films trotted out yet again by this concert’s programme notes). But Stravinsky, too, had a fabulous ear, and like Tchaikovsky he wrote with special flair for the wind instruments – not noisily, but deftly, often reducing the sections to pairs of this or that, and treating them as soloists or concertante groups.

The young players of the GMJO (all of them 26 or under) seized on this kind of thing with relish, with superb athleticism and sheer pleasure at Stravinsky’s obvious love of their instruments. Here, too, they could make plenty of racket when it was needed. But Davis’s own restraint ensured that it was only when it was needed, as a marker, or at climaxes. I can do with this music at a more rapid tempo, but I can’t imagine it played with a quicker grasp of its inner life and wit.

'Like a snake-charmer, she knew how to bend the relation between words, musical line and pitch enticingly'


Susan Graham c BBC Chris ChristodoulouPlaced between these two emphatic Russian symphonies, Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade seemed to deny everything they stood for, even though its own background certainly includes Russiana of a kind. This is pure languorous orientalism, an apotheosis of the sensual that makes Rimsky-Korsakov’s music in this vein sound functional by comparison. One listens to the voice, certainly, but also no less to the incredibly refined, soft detailing of the orchestration, especially the writing for low flute (like some distant, enchanted horn), often set, counter-intuitively, below the other woodwind.

The soprano soloist is, of course, always the focus in these vivid, dreamlike settings of the ridiculously pen-named Tristan Klingsor’s exquisitely fake exotica. Susan Graham (pictured above right) entered into the fin-de-siècle atmosphere with complete identification and masterly control of the relation between words, musical line and pitch, which, like a snake-charmer, she knew how to bend enticingly.

It was irresistibly beautiful and it brought out the best in the packed Prom audience, who sat or stood without a tremor or a cough, not wanting to spoil the magic to which, after all, they were contributing.


The Soprano Soloist is of course the world renowned MEZZO Soprano Susan Graham.

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