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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 71 Carter, Bartok and Brahms: Boston Symphony Orchestra James Levine (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London (GD)


Elliott Carter: Three Illusions for Orchestra (UK Premiere)
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No.1 Op. 68.


Carter’s ‘Three Illusions for Orchestra’ was composed between 2004 and 2005 and follows the triptychs of the 1980’s ‘Three Occasions’, and the ‘Symphonica’ of the 1990’s. The piece was commissioned by Levine and the Boston Symphony. The latest triptych is incredibly economically composed, each piece lasting no more than three minutes. Carter, in his late nineties, incorporates far more innovative diversity in each piece than many composers half his age taking far longer. The first of the three pieces, all scored for large orchestra with an array of percussion, was inspired by the ‘Princess Micomicona’ section (First Book part 37) of Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote’ where the Don imagines he is defending the Princess against the heads of enemies when in fact he is merely thrashing at wine skins. The second piece takes as its allusion the Roman legend of ‘Fons Juventatis,’ the magical fountain that restores youth when in fact all it does is splash and cause wetness. The final piece is mockingly cynical of the illusion of a perfectly rationalized, regimented society envisaged by Sir Thomas More in his ‘Utopia’. The work incorporates multiple levels of polytonality, chromatic figurations, and complex rhythmic structures and so on. But for me what really stood out here is Carter’s sheer originality in terms of orchestral texture ‘sound’; how he can juxtapose within a short  sound- structure the most complex dynamic levels with an exquisite elegance achieved through amazing levels of textural contrast within a deftly economic soundscape.

The orchestral diversity of the pieces where fully complemented by incredible playing from the orchestra; in fact listening to the pieces carefully, their staggering range of orchestral sonorities, had me speculating that they could easily be counted as three concertos for orchestra in microcosmic form. It is tempting to wonder what Carter would make of orchestral allusions taken from the contemporary array of mass media, advertising and celebrity illusions. I wonder whether or not he could still be as eloquently economical? Probably yes…

The real benefits of hearing this greatest of ‘concertos for orchestra’ played by an orchestra of this excellence is that immediately you can hear a whole range of orchestral sonorities ‘there’ in the score but seldom heard clearly. I am thinking of the wonderful contrast between different overlapping string pp tremolandos just after opening phrases of the ‘Introduzione’. And the ff string declaration of the opening theme for once played totally in tune and together. Also, still in the first movement, it was staggering to hear for once the upward string figurations at the close of the mid-section build-up of canonic fanfare pronouncements in brass so clearly articulated and totally integrated.

The second movement ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ was again totally together and in tune. The playful two by two initiated in the woodwind I felt could have been more imaginatively phrased; more of an expressive engagement with Bartok’s folk inspired lyrical and rhythmic inflections. I had noticed this also in the first movement, but having been so bowled over by the power and virtuosity of the playing it didn’t really register until the more intimate, dialogic nature of the second movement. Also the mid-section chorale theme on m/f woodwind and brass could have been phrased more elegantly and lightly. Levine has a very strong sense of rhythm but as I discovered later in the Brahms symphony he sometimes lacks a sense of rhythmic diversity and contrast; a very strong thrusting down- beat at the expense of a dynamic up-beat and rhythmic/dynamic cross-over. The third movement ‘Elegia’ was played powerfully in a straightforward manner with great sonorous contrast from the strings. However I felt the timpani and brass ff interjections in the anguished but stoical mid-section a bit bashed out. If you listen to the old Chicago Reiner recording here, or those by Fricsay, Ancerl, and more recently Ivan Fischer and his totally idiomatic sounding Budapest Festival Orchestra, you will hear more rhythmic contrast, more integration of thematic material.

The same criticisms applied to the fourth movement ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ with its caustic parodying of the march crescendo theme from the first movement of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Seventh Symphony. Levine’s rubato tempo fluctuations sounded contrived (even calculated) in contrast to the most idiomatic performances which virtually let the music play itself. The big allargando Levine made for trombone glissandi (real loud raspberries tonight) may have thrilled the prom-audience but they did little for Bartok.

The finale, again subtended by Hungarian folk themes, went mostly very well with no sense of a grand-stand coda spectacular. Levine here deployed little rubato,    playing it straight through. However I felt at times a lack of the sense of the overall dynamic contour of the movement. Levine revealed detail that often gets smudged of buried; I have never heard the accompanying string figurations in the fugal section with searing trumpets sound so clear. But the attention to detail here undermined the movement’s crucial sense of surging inevitability. The playing was again superb, if at times a little too loud; the final peroration was even louder, especially in the brass, but there was no sense of ultimate power in reserve, it just became louder.

The performance of the Brahms’ First Symphony taken in its own terms, and as a proms event, was impressively powerful and exciting; in terms of orchestral virtuosity alone this Brahms One was guaranteed to elicit a rousing ovation, which it did. But again, and throughout the performance, and as in the previous Bartok, I constantly noted both positive and negative features. The performances strengths again came from the superb playing of the orchestra and Levine’s strong sense of rhythmic thrust and his ability to hold a ‘Sostenuto’, as in the second movement. The shortcomings were more difficult to define, having to do in part with Levine’s over determination of downward rhythmic emphasis at the expense the more refined, mediated and integrated rhythmic response the work demands. A certain ham-fisted quality, for want of a more nuanced term. Also Brahms’ contrast of dramatic charge and song-like lyricism was rarely achieved in an integrated way; the way older conductors like Toscanini and van Beinum in their different ways understood so well. And mention of Toscanini here is not as arbitrary as it might sound. Levine greatly admires the ‘maestro’s’ legacy and at certain levels one could hear Toscanini’s influence. The rhythmic precision and emphasis on the ‘Poco sostenuto’ in the work’s opening being a case in point. But Levine couldn’t quite manage those Beethovenian cross-rhythms in strings in the main ‘Allegro’ the way Toscanini used to. The lyrical sections sounded too prosaic here, beautifully played (especially in the woodwind) but never really integrating expressively with the whole.

Again Levine’s eye was on the ‘Sostenuto’ in the ‘Andante’, and the beautiful cadenza for solo violin and horn was most musically and spontaneously managed. But the big violin cascading sequence in the second subject sounded too loud, almost degenerating into Hollywood sheen. The ‘Un poco allegretto grazioso’ third movement seemed to play itself with beautifully co-ordinated strings and winds, even though the central trio section sounded a shade strident.

After a suitably brooding last movement introduction the glowing spectrum of light initiated by the great horn call resonated in wonderful vibrato; almost sounding Russian, which I know is a particular bête-noir for English critics! The final itself was well sustained but again lacked the essential expressive and lyrical/dramatic contrast. The exultant rhythmically charged coda suited Levine’s robust, rhythmic thrust well, although, as with the Bartok I felt no sense of ultimate power in reserve, the release of jubilation which can still make one wonder at this glorious old war-horse. Even though superbly played it all sounded a tad predictable tonight.

Levine was generous with encores tonight, which greatly delighted the prom audience after their thunderous, quite uncritical, response to the Brahms symphony. Levine gave exhilarating performances of the Dvorak ‘Slavonic dance’ (No 7 in C major, from the less well known Opus 72 set), and Brahms’ ‘First Hungarian Dance’ in G minor (one of the three Brahms orchestrated). I don’t quite know what prompted Levine to introduce string portamenti (especially in the Dvorak)? Perhaps he was simply experimenting in encore styles. After all a certain degree of performative licence seemed appropriate for encore material, given the festive context.     


Geoff Diggines


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