Carter / Prokofiev 6

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Carter / Prokofiev 6

Post by herman » Sun May 22, 2005 6:23 am

Friday, May 20. Denis Russell Davies conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: Six One-Act Plays by Hans Kox; Dialogues by Elliott Carter (Maki Namekawa, piano), and Prokofiev Symphony nr 6.

As far as I know it is rather unusual in Amsterdam for a conductor to pick up a mike and chat for a a minute or two before turning to the orchestra and starting the concert. Denis Russell Davies, of whom I had not heard before (he's an American in Germany, probably to make up for all the German conductors working in the US backwoods), did, pointing out Hans Kox, who'd just turned 75, in the auditorium, and mentioning that he'd called "Elliott" on the phone just this week to talk about the concert. He assured us that we were in for something special.

I wish he hadn't said so, because I don't think it works this way. The Carter piece, a piano concerto from 2003, is a beautiful work, yet another gorgeous nocturne along the same lines as Carter's recent orchestral works. It didn't however make the same impression on me as the socalled Boston Concerto for orchestra I heard one or two years ago at the Concertgebouw (Ingo Metzmacher conducting). Maybe it doesn’t work as well when there's a instrument like the piano standing out from the orchestral textures. There were moments when the piano was bubbling along imitating as it were a string or wind section.

In his little talk Davies had called Prokofiev's Sixth one of the masterpieces of the past century, too rarely heard. This was going to be the fourth time the RCO was ever performing this piece, so, Davies, said few people in the audience would have heard it before, live. Well, I had been at the previous performance in 1987 with Myung Whun Chung conducting. And I had heard a magnificent performance by the Rotterdam Philharmonic in 2000, a frail old Kurt Sanderling conducting, plus another performance by the combined Rotterdam and Kirov orchestras, led by Valery Gergiev. So I was really eager to hear the Concertgebouw once again in this work. [edit: according to the radio broadcast the first two Concertgebouw performances were by Ormandy 1953 and Leinsdorf 1957.]

The highlight of this performance was the middle movement, with the trumpet sounding the main lyrical theme solo. (In Gergiev's account the trumpet was virtually inaudible under the massive string onslaught) It was the one movement in which I thought Davies was close to getting it right, though the wonderful passage for celesta and harp didn't quite satisfy me either (this was the one great moment in Gergiev's acount). The first movement was taken too fast. It's a tough piece with a big lengthy prelude connecting us, at last, to the main theme, and my sense is Davies wanted to get to the tick-tock bassoon announcing the big theme fast, not letting the prelude material establish the various moods first.

Davies' pace was even faster than Mravinsky in Prague (1967), which is already on the fast side - however Mravinsky was working with an orchestra that knew this music inside out. In Davies case the first movement just sounded rushed, and the music didn't really come to bloom. [edit: the radio broadcast confirmed it was way faster.]

Instantly I got the strange feeling Davies, in spite of his evident enthusiasm - both in his speech and in his body language - didn't really love the music. Otherwise he would've given it time to fully breathe. Another thing was, the dynamics in the Sixth are infinitely terrassed. Davies however seemed to have picked the big moment in each movement. As if this was a Bruckner symphony he was going to unleash the massive orchestral forces at just those three points, and he was definitely keeping them in check before. Especially in the finale this was noticable. There were lots of accents that just didn't get the required dynamic power, because Daves was savin' up for those shattering last bars.

Speaking of body language. Davies has great stick technique alright, but he hardly uses his left hand, and it showed in the results. Mostly he used his left hand for those annoying "maestro" finger jabs towards a single instrument. "Now it's your turn!" - as if they couldn't read music or something. No, Mr Davies was wrong when he predicted I was going to hear something special, and I'm sorry to say I could very well live without ever seeing him conduct a work I love again.

I talked to a fair number of people who seemed pretty excited about this Sixth - which they, indeed, had not been too familiar with before. (IMO there is no really good cd recording of this work either.) My wife was happy. I unfortunately was not. This was not nearly as good as Sanderling's Sixth, in which every phrase sang and the entire symphony was a story about beauty, love, suffering and just plain fun. More and more I come to realise that two of the greatest concert experiences in my life were Sanderling concerts - Prokofiev 6 in Rotterdam and Schubert 9 in Minneapolis. This man is really something else.

I'm going to listen to the radio broadcast of the same concert later this afternoon, but I'm posting this anyway.

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