Having been conducting Brahms on Sunday at the Festival de Lanaudière, Canada’s largest classical music festival, Yannick Nézet-Séguin can’t have had much time to prepare for his surprise stint with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Proms (with Salzburg to follow). Most audience members were aware that Mariss Jansons had been advised to withdraw on medical grounds but fewer were expecting a replacement soloist. The advent of Gil Shaham came too late for the printed programmes although an insert was provided. That said, stand-ins don’t come much more welcome!
The Prokofiev certainly came with an impressive recording pedigree. With Jansons at the helm the Bavarian Radio SO backed Nikolaj Znaider’s version for RCA, Nézet-Séguin conducted for the currently indisposed Lisa Batiashvili on DG and Gil Shaham himself has set it down twice (DG and Canary Classics). On the night, the lack of careful dovetailing and dynamic terracing implied some lack of rehearsal and Shaham’s relaxed approach won’t have suited everyone. There was much bonhomie, foot-stamping and moving about as if to address different orchestral musicians directly, that wonderfully rich sound in danger of being projected to sub-sections of the audience rather than the crowd as a whole. (The big barn was not quite full.) When you make music like Shaham’s some of the more severe and interventionist interpretative options favoured in recent years start to seem beside the point. He is unashamedly old-school, with some less than subtle expressive slides in his armoury. Still, in the ideally paced slow movement he brought an appropriate air of chasteness to the opening theme, fining down the sonority to a radiant thread. Less successful was the lyrical climax where Shaham, like many violinists, favours a bigger, more ecstatic effect than the composer had in mind. The accompaniment rather dragged us back to Earth, dutiful, oddly chugging. A few intonational lapses did not discourage Shaham from offering the ‘Gavotte en rondeau’ from Bach’s E-major Partita (BWV1006) as an encore, playful twiddles and all
Placed before the interval, the Sibelius proved much less satisfactory, the distinctive mahogany of the ensemble working against the music’s searing edges and wilder impulses. Was it the conductor who made the whole thing sound like a miraculously together first rehearsal or had there been insufficient time to do more? This is a work in which extreme interpretations tend to work best, whether swiftly flowing in the manner of Anthony Collins or Osmo Vänskä or unashamedly Romantic (Leonard Bernstein). This one just seemed pale, although the timpanist had a different, more demonstrative performance in mind. Elsewhere a ruinous lack of attack and continuity undermined the structure as if intent on exposing every seam. There was plenty of finely articulated detail but almost no sense of Nordic light or of a symphonic journey heroically undertaken, q.v. the team’s superior Shostakovich Fifth the previous night. Tempos were mostly half asleep.
The last piece on the published programme was the so-called Rosenkavalier Suite, a careless cut-and-paste potpourri authorised but not directly authored by its hard-up composer at the end of the Second World War. Here at last the orchestra’s glowing sonority was absolutely in keeping, not quite tipping into generalised glossiness; it was not difficult to hear why some rate the BRSO as the best in the World. More fitfully present was any sense of a big personality driving things forward from the podium. The encore was Sibelius’s Valse triste, as beautiful as the Strauss in its way if again unidiomatic, the sophistication misplaced, the centre of gravity too low, the string tone too husky. I could go on… It was a disappointing night.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms