Wednesday 22 August 2012

Prom 51 - Glinka, Shostakovich and Howard

I have to confess that I sometimes wonder at the logic which goes into the planning of orchestral programmes. Last night’s Prom from Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (21 August) started with a Russian orchestral showpiece, Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture, and finished with one of Shostakovich’s most pregnantly political symphonic statements, his Leningrad Symphony (Symphony no. 7). In between, we didn’t get a suitably Russian concerto, or a piece which cleverly linked with both Glinka and Shostakovich. Instead young English composer Emily Howard’s orchestral work, Calculus of the Nervous System, received its first UK performance, giving the composer her first Proms outing. The programme sort of worked, the three pieces were so diverse and each showed a different side of the orchestra, allowing Nelsons to demonstrate what a fine and brilliant instrument the CBSO has become under his direction. But I couldn’t help thinking that Howard’s piece was a little becalmed, there in the middle.

Nelsons account of Russlan and Ludmilla was forward driven, brilliant and not a little hard edged. The CBSO strings responded superbly, and there were a lot of them. Nelsons used the same huge body of strings for the entire concert, for Glinka and for Shostakovich’s mammoth work. As a showpiece you couldn’t get better, but was it Glinka? Though Glinka’s music influenced whole generations of Russian composers and is commonly played alongside music by his late 19th century successors, we must bear in mind that the Italy that Glinka travelled in was the Italy of Rossini. Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla dates from 1837-1842, but no-one ever seems to play it that way.

The problem, I suppose, is that Glinka’s hour has not yet come, his opera still has not become currency in the west, so we can hardly hope for a period practice re-assessment of his music. But next time you hear an orchestra whizz through the overture as a showpiece for dazzling late 19th century orchestral technique, just try and imagine what it would sound like, if played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with a more relaxed tempo and with hints of Rossini.

On Monday night I was present at a Q&A session at which Emily Howard explained something of the background to her piece, Calculus of the Nervous System, with its various inspirations in Ada Lovelace, Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, exponential functions and neural networks. Her intention was to create an image of how the brain holds and jumbles up memories. But listening to the performance of Calculus of the Nervous System I began to wonder whether knowing a composer’s inspiration actually helps us understand the piece. Certainly, the motivic figures in the music which represent the individual memories were too difficult to ascertain and follow, without study and a score. What was left was a piece which was profoundly atmospheric, where something always seemed about to happen.

It started and ended in near silence, except that the real impression was that the music continued for ever. There was no development and no resolution, the music just was; which was rather gripping. Howard’s writing was often sparse and spare, with individual notes placed very carefully. The overall impression was not of melody or motivic figure, but of texture. Howard’s intention had evidently been to create the jumbled up feeling that memories have in the brain, but in fact randomness generates its own sort of uniformity. For her intellectual concept to come over aurally, I think she would have needed to work from a more structured, tonal starting point and allow that to fracture, to give listeners some baselines. But if you forgot about her intentions and simply listened, the result was a fascinating and tantalising piece; one which was superbly rendered by Nelsons and the CBSO.

After the interval there was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, and for this the large body of CBSO strings was finally properly balanced with a suitable large contingent of wind and brass (plus percussion of course). The symphony was famously written during the siege of Leningrad, performed there and broadcast to invading Germans. It is difficult to listen to it without thinking of the work’s origins. The whole structure of the first movement ensures this. After a conventional sonata form opening, the development is replaced by a new motif which starts quietly and slowly builds. The motif is repeated so incessantly that this section in effect becomes a sort of passacaglia, and I can’t help thinking that the CBSO side drum player must have been in danger of getting RSI, such was the repetition of his part.

Nelsons and his orchestra played brilliantly, but rather brought out the film-score quality in Shostakovich’s writing, something which is always close to the surface in this piece. Superb playing, but for me it lacked bite and edge, the climax was stupendous but not really terrifying.

Afterwards, I amazed at how the composer could turn on a sixpence and go from such clamour, to small scale, with a superbly realised and very consoling solo from the orchestra’ principal bassoon. Then just as you think the movement is going to end consolingly, the hints of the invasion theme return to unsettle.

Both the middle movements are intended to be unsettling, with relatively conventional first sections followed by rather demonic passages. Here the CBSO were in full character, with Nelsons whipping them up into a fine frenzy. There was a superbly evil solo from the E flat clarinet and a well realised passage where Shostakovich gives the solo line to the bass clarinet, accompanying it by flutes and harp. Here, and in many other places, Nelsons showed himself very acute when it came to Shostakovich’s distinctive aural palate.

The final movement seemed to expend itself in a flurry of expectation, but never delivering and then finally out of the quiet stasis came a slow, steady, inexorable but hard won climax. This was quite shattering and a superb ending. But like, other passages, Nelsons brought out the shine and Hollywood quality in Shostakovich’s writing.

I also have to confess that by the end of the symphony after some 70 or 75 minutes, there had been moments when it had outstayed its welcome. Nelsons and his orchestra were great on the details, but in overall structure, Nelsons did not quite convince me that this was a great work.

The result was still an incredible showpiece for the orchestra, who are playing at the top of their form. There were superb solos from all sections and overall an inspiring feeling of cohesion and support for Nelsons. 

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