Two very different visits to the Royal Festival Hall

Tuesday and Wednesday evenings of this week were both spent at the Royal Festival Hall.  The two evenings couldn’t have been more different.

First off was Renee Fleming and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Charles Dutoit whipping up the storms.  To say it was Renee Fleming and the RPO is a bit of an exaggeration; as has been remarked elsewhere (see comment thread in particular), it was the RPO with a brief appearance by Fleming to lighten the mood.  It was an oddly unbalanced concert to say the least.

For starters, it was a ‘sing the CD’ affair.  Something to plug?  Book the Festival Hall.  With Fleming, Terfel, Gheorghiu, Netrebko and Hvorostovsky all passing through in the space of a few weeks, it rather feels that the resident orchestras are only required to really put their minds to what to do to fill in the gaps left by the record company managements.  I may well be being unfair, and this may indeed be an exaggeration, but this concert left an unpleasant taste and I therefore feel that a bit of grumpiness is not out of place.

Two Romeo & Juliets – Prokofiev in the first half, Tchaikovsky in the second – were complemented by a few arias from Fleming’s Verismo disc (two by Leoncavallo, one each for Giordani and Puccini) and Eugene Onegin’s letter scene.  It didn’t add up to a whole lot.  Oh, and we had “one encore” (specifically announced in what felt like a ‘this is all you’re getting so make the most of it’ way): O mio babbino caro.  We sat in the choir so admired the back of her gown and the back of her head.  Sound wasn’t great, obviously, but what came across most vividly was the Manon Lescaut item (sola, perduta, abandonnata).  The others seemed to trot by rather blandly.  Sat within spitting distance of the brass and timpani (we restrained ourselves, obviously), the Prokofiev was an intermittently rumbustious affair.

Then Wednesday: the LPO tackled Wagner and Bruckner, with Petra Lang present to deliver a rich, fine Wesendonck Lieder, all led by Christoph Eschenbach.  This was a much more satisfactory affair all round.  Eschenbach was marvellous to watch, as he communicated the more expansive and climactic moments vividly.  If bits of Wagner have to be wrenched free of their settings, then I’ll take the Tannhauser overture quite happily, especially when played (as here) in a way that really ratchets the tension in the build-up to that glorious full-on rendition of the Pilgrims’ Chorus over squiggly violin motifs (that’s a technical term, by the way).  The Wesendonck Lieder were, as I say, rather wonderful.  Having last seen/heard Petra Lang munching her way through already well-chewed scenery in the ROH’s Lohengrin, with full-on vocal dramatics, I wasn’t expecting so refined and controlled a performance.  It was magnetic, with gorgeous tone throughout, and a rapt concentration that was held to the very end when Eschenbach took a good 10-15 seconds to drop his baton slowly in a silent Hall.  Magic.  And how very different from the atmosphere in the same hall the previous night.

I don’t understand Bruckner, and I think it will be a while before I do.  I like it, don’t get me wrong, but bar a rather ropey performance of the 4th by the Oxford University Orchestra in my student days, I haven’t attended a live performance of a Bruckner symphony.  One really needs to do the homework before going.  I see a lot written about the ‘architecture’ of these symphonies, of the overall structure which must be related to the individual building blocks, such as is only possible by the great Brucknerian conductors.  Well, if Bruckner’s 6th is architecture, I fear that I spent a lot of time admiring a couple of pediments, some window surrounds and a rather grand doorcase, but failed to get a full view of the edifice.  Don’t get me wrong, though, I like the sound-world:  I marvel at the glory of those climaxes that blaze forth as only Bruckner seems able to command;  the elegance of the rhythms in the gentler passages is a joy; but overall, the stop-start-soft-loud-soft approach leaves me pleasantly, at times giddily, bewildered, in this case, most particularly in the last movement.  Maybe as I get older I’ll understand…

I will also just remark on an individual in the choir – front row centre – who had the effrontery, pretty much from first bar of Wagner to last glorious climax of Bruckner, to repeatedly nod off and awaken, over and over again, in regular and distracting fashion, falling so far forward as to practically have his head on the rail in front of him, before bobbing back up again and then resuming his droop forward.  After the third movement of Bruckner the people behind him had a word, the effect of which lasted all of about 10mins.  Frankly, I was hoping that someone near by would pull out a sheet of cast iron, slip it between the pages of their programme and, under cover of a Bruckner brass chorale, give him a good stout crack across the back of the head.  He certainly deserved it.  A friend, who spent the first half in the choir behind the miscreant before moving elsewhere for the sake of his sanity, speculated that Eschenbach noticed the miscreant’s narcoleptic bobbing-about.  Unforgiveable, and all credit to Eschenbach for not stopping and demanding his removal.  I could discourse at great length on the irritations of audiences – and at some point will – but this seemed to me wilfully rude. 

So, two evenings, each very different:  the later of the two the more enjoyable and, I have to say, appearing to possess considerably greater artistic integrity.

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