15. Andrew Porter: 2 Reviews [Financial Times, May/June 1966] - with Clara-theme references
Andrew Porter: 2 Reviews
Financial Times, 13-5-1967 and 29-6-1967
Three guineas surely is a lot to pay for a programme whose second half consists of Ravel'sPavane for a dead Infanta and Bolero – even if the players are the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. Last time I heard these forces they were glowing, eloquent, unforgettably beautiful, in the Salzburg Walküre. On display in the Festival Hall they made a less memorable impression.
This is the Rolls-Royce (or Mercedes-Benz) of orchestras. The description suggests itself not because they are mechanical, but because they are so smooth, so sure; they can purr atpianissimo, and take the steepest dynamic gradient in their stride without a hint of strain. Power-steering, power-brakes, and perfect, precise response to the controls at Karajan's lightest touch.
One doesn't always sense the "ride" keenly enough. The landscape can slip by too smoothly. Dropping the metaphor, one might say that the Pavane, though played with the highest corporate accomplishment, lacked character. The Bolero began with amazing softness, as if the drum were being tapped with the lightest of fingernails, and the strings responding to glances rather than the pluck of human fingers. Flute, clarinet, bassoon achieved miracles of pianissimo playing.
When the two piccolos, marked pp, joined in with the horn, marked mf, their organum was so prominent that the oddest wrong-note harmonies were heard like that an organ whose mutations drown the fundamental. The climax was immense but without stridency – not so loud, however, as the final climaxes of the Pink Floyd across the way, whose music was much more interesting than Ravel’s.
Ravel, rightly, deemed his Pavane a salon piece and dubbed the Bolero "effects without music," and it needs a Beecham to make the one magical, the other more than tedious. Only the Berlin trombone played the tune with some wit and character as well as fine technical control. Karajan's first half had more music in it. It opened with the sixth Brandenburg, with reduced forces but not 18th – nor 20-century in spirit.
There were 12 strings – the two top lines trebled, the two bottom ones doubled, and a pair of cellos in the middle –and a pair of harpsichords (Karajan directing from one) which were blessedly un-amplified and perfectly audible. It was a soft, smooth, deep-piled velvety performance with no grit in it.
And then Schumann's fourth symphony. The pendulum has swung so absurdly far that "probably the most respected and widely read critic in Britain" (I quote from one – advertisement – page of the programme) can tell us (on the opposite page) that Schumann's symphonies are "as satisfying as anything in the concert repertory."
Not the fourth, not to me, not last night. It opened well. Clara – Clara – Clara sang the music in that famous five-note figure which spells her name, first with gentle devotion, then with increasing ardour. The whole of the first movement suggested that this might prove to be one of Karajan’s passionate, emotionally engaged performances. But thereafter it became another of his smoothly controlled, blandly perfect executions.
WTB's second programme consisted of two of their own "classics," The prisoners and Street games, and a newly studied version of that Diaghilev classic Le carnaval. The prisoners is a straightforward dramatic ballet effectively laid out on Bartòk's Music for percussion, celesta and strings, with three rewarding actor‑dancer roles. Darrell's choreography skilfully nuances thoughts and feelings. The ballet, good theatre, deserves its long life, It was well played last night by Donna Day Washington, Simon Mottram and Peter Cazalet.
Street games was also in excellent shape, disciplined, charming and funny, catching without distortion Gore's wit and elegance as he invents for the urchins.
A fine Schumann ballet might perhaps he made by a choreographer in tune with Schumann's marvellous mind, set to that music where art and life, music and letters, ideas of Clara, Beethoven and Jean Paul, David, Eusebius, and Florestan, all go dancing together. Perhaps Eric Sams, who has probed so deeply into what each musical phrase means, might help with the scenario. About Fokin's Le carnaval I confess to heresay. The ballet seems to me so horribly unmusical, unSchumannesque, that I can hardly with patience watch it (or when orchestrated – last night Gordon Jacob's brassy version was used – hear it).
On its own terms, which are not Schumann's, Le carnaval says many dainty, subtle things about the natures of love. For WTB it is obviously a good "link" ballet between the classics and more modern forms of communication. I am too much out of tune with it to assess the performance. Bakst's celebrated décor in this realisation (and for that matter every other I have seen) strikes me as hideous.