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PROMS 2002

Prom 4: Berlioz, Bruch, Messiaen, Ravel, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Kyung-Wha Chung, Violin; Myung-Wha Chung, Conductor, Royal Albert Hall, 22nd July 2002 (AR)


Myung-Wha Chung conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a programme of works by Berlioz, Bruch, Messiaen and Ravel. Opening the evening, Berlioz’ Roman Carnival overture was conducted in too sedate a manner and lacked panache and sparkle. It was too respectable, unfestive and tame - not so much a Carnival as a Fête worse than death.

The evening was a family affair, with Chung's celebrated sister, Kyung-Wha Chung, playing the ever-popular Bruch Violin Concerto. She played athletically, her whole body moving in swift contortions while her face expressed ecstatic elevation. Her reading was sensitive, without affectation or sentimentality, and her tone was taut and never strident. She is arguably the finest interpreter of the Bruch Violin Concerto today. Her playing of the adagio in particular was ravishing. It was easy to understand why Richard Strauss appropriated a phrase from this movement which he directly quoted in his Alpine Symphony. Her brother's conducting perfectly complemented her performance.

Written in 1932, Messiaen's L'ascension is his most important early orchestral work. It bears the stamp of sensuous Catholic kitsch which has become a hallmark of the composer's oeuvre. Certain sections of L'ascension echo Messiean's seminal work, the Turangalia Symphony (1946-8).

The opening movement - 'Majesty of Christ asking Glory from his Father' - scored only for brass and woodwind, was disappointing. The majestic chorale was marred by bad brass intonation; the brass section were not together and clearly under-rehearsed. The following movement, 'Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul Seeking Heaven' although sharply punctuated by woodwind, nevertheless lacked penetrative bite; it was all too low key and lacking in the necessary exotic mood. The scherzo, 'Hallelujah on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal', was well paced and well played. Particularly powerful were the cellos and double basses, but all was let down by a dull percussion department which might as well have been playing in another room.

The final movement, 'Prayer of Christ Rising to His father', is scored only for strings. Here the conductor was at his best, letting the music play itself, without imposing the emotive grunts or histrionic gestures which this movement (like the adagio of Mahler's 9th Symphony) can often provoke. Chung paced the music perfectly, allowing it to float and never drag and the strings played with intense luminosity. Indeed, this suave French string section easily outclasses any London orchestra in its sheer voluptuousness.

The final work Ravel's La Valse was a sleep walking affair. Chung's reading was ponderously slow and lacked any tension or sense of urgency. Chung had no understanding of the aura of menace and manic acceleration that La Valse requires; the frightening dance of death element was totally lacking, and was more akin to sedate ballroom dancing.

By way of an encore, the Promenaders were treated to a vigorous performance of Bizet's Carmen Act One prelude, a bonne bouche which went down very well.

Overall, the conductor did his best, but it was his sister's evening.

Alex Russell




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