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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 73: Dvorák, Puccini, Bellini, Shostakovich Anna Netrebko (soprano); BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Nosaeda, RAH, September 10th, 2004 (CC)
A strangely, almost disturbingly mixed Prom. Strange in the sense that a first half with an immense amount to recommend it could be so closely followed by an account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was lacking on so many levels.
It was a good idea to begin the concert with a Dvorák symphonic poem, The Water Goblin (1896). Not exactly everyday fare, although Noseda and his band provided as good a case as any that it should be. The story is hardly the happiest - a water goblin captures a maiden who, through continued entreaty, secured a home visit to see her mother. A refusal to return leads to the daughter’s baby being left outside the door, dead and headless.
Dvorák treats this happy tale with obvious relish, and it was a treat to hear the BBC Philharmonic paint the story in such vivid colours, from Dvorákian angst to tender, gossamer-thin textures. Highlights were the oboe solos and a sorrowful cello melody later on, supported by dark colours on low brass. It was an excellent opener, only marred by some occasionally weak-sounding violins.
Most people, I imagine, had come to see and hear (both are pleasurable) the soprano Anna Netrebko, current star of the DG firmament. The Prom coincided nicely with the release of Netrebko’s new ‘álbum’, Sempre libera (September 13); the link with Noseda was made by the fact her debut disc of last year was made with Noseda at the helm.
How wonderful to find that all the fuss is justified for once. She began her bouquet of arias with more Dvorák, the ‘Song to the moon’ from Rusalka (1901). Netrebko’s attack was stunning, spot-on always, her ability to float notes magical. Slurs were miraculous, and if anything the BBC Philharmonic played even better than in the symphonic poem.
Her Czech was excellent (her hacek-ed ‘r’s fine - at least, text-book for the second one, perhaps a little restrained for the first): her unhacek-ed (almost as difficult if set in the midst of a thicket of consonants) even more impressive.
Netrebko is a young lady, so the choice of Musetta’s Waltz Song from Puccini’s La bohème was a good one. Netrebko had ended the Dvorák with a sterling high note. More of the same was to make this Puccini outstanding (along with a lovely half-voice at ‘E ti struggi da me tanto rifuggi’.)
A chamber music-like Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut from the orchestra, kept flowing by Noseda yet with strings incapable of the burnished tones required for the big outpouring, separated the final vocal items. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I puritani (1834/5) closed Netrebko’s set. If the typically Bellinian flute melodies sounded a little trite after the Puccini, one soon adjusted to Bellini on his own terms. Netrebko’s scalic work was breathtaking, her legato velvety, and she showed she has a formidable low range, too. She is a star already, of that there is no doubt. The fact she is young means there is plenty to look forward to. How refreshing to be able to write about someone whose sterling technique serves a natural, intelligent musicality. How rare.
Maybe the BBC Philharmonic thought the Prom effectively ended there. Or maybe Noseda just doesn’t do Shostakovich. Whatever the reason, this was one of the most misguided, lacklustre Shostakovich performances it has ever been my misfortune to hear. The introduction was fast (yet it has to be said determined.) Perhaps, I thought, this gritty focus was to be the mainstay of the interpretation. No, in hindsight it was just rushed, perhaps to hide the fact the strings needed more depth for this music. The first violins, it emerged, could not (or perhaps would not) do emaciated for the long, slow melody. Later, low horns and piano were almost unbelievably under-powered. Parody was merely hinted at (if that), and the big unison string climax was ineffectual because of Noseda’s inability to prepare for it by respecting the larger canvas.
Similar lack of grit characterised the ‘Állegretto’. Noseda proved he can flail with the worst of them when he conducted this movement, an allegretto notable only for a few orchestral niceties (great solo violin). Nice to hear the strings had rehearsed the slow movement. Indeed, there were many felicities, but none of the sense of embarking on a great journey one encounters in, say, Bernstein’s accounts. A double shame, therefore, that a true pianissimo was marred by an electronic ring-tone. But the climax was ineffectual because of Noseda’s continuing inability to see the wood for the trees.
The finale set forth more of Noseda’s repertoire of disappointments, including soft-toned timpani at the opening (!) and a dynamically challenged climax that rendered the horn’s balm thereafter completely ineffectual. This lack of long-range vision also, by the way, led to a hopeless structural ‘sag’ in the middle. The ending had no chance, whichever way one guessed Noseda saw it.
I was first out of the concert hall.
The best thing by far about this Shostakovich Fifth was David Gutman’s exemplary programme notes. We could effectively have read these, dispensed with the performance altogether, and we would have gone home happier.