BBC Proms reviews

Prom 49: Beethoven – Symphony No 9; Gubaidulina – The Light of the End @ Royal Albert Hall, London

20 August 2005

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Another Prom, another London orchestra, another Beethoven symphony coupled with another piece of modern music. It could well have been a re-run of Friday’s scintillating Prom experience with the LSO and Colin Davis; but the London Philharmonic’s rendition of Beethoven’s Choral symphony under Kurt Masur was a sloppy affair indeed.

There were moments throughout the evening when I thought things could pick up, but confusion reigned for the most part. In the first half we heard the UK premiere of Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Light of the End. I really admired her sound-world, and the orchestra played valiantly through Masur’s unintelligible conducting, but the piece betrays an indeterminacy of purpose.

According to the programme, the piece describes a journey from darkness to light. To me, however, it went from darkness to light and back to darkness again, as Gubaidulina has bound the music to a traditional three-section form, with the opening material returning for the final section. How is this a journey? And though the opening waves of string sound promised much in the way of atmosphere, the music never reached a true momentum. The LPO’s soloists were in fine form though, with better horn playing than we heard from the LSO the previous night and brilliant trombones.

Already in this opening piece, however, one could detect an imbalance of forces, with the violins prominent through the whole concert. I have regularly experienced this problem with the orchestra at the Festival Hall, but here it led to an at times excruciating playing of the Beethoven. The opening movement seemed to consist of a violin part accompanied by a murmur of sound from the rest of the players. Masur’s fast tempo led to the missing of subtleties and detail, and his strange propensity to chop up phrases into small detached units deprived us of the larger musical arc.

This symphony is, like Mozart’s Magic Flute and Wagner’s Parsifal, more cultural phenomenon than just another piece of music. It has a unique atmosphere that was lacking in this performance. The second movement was thrown away with little care, again with too many jagged edges showing.

Happily, the Adagio allowed the wind players to break through with a different colour for the one and only time in the evening. Masur’s steady pace ensured that there was no dullness here.

Yet the final movement was a disappointment. It cannot have helped that two of the four soloists had been replaced within the last few days. Christiane Libor took over from Christine Goerke as the soprano. She had moments of beauty but absolutely ruined the high melodic turn in her most prominent passage due to poor tuning. Jean Rigby (replacing Carolin Masur) was barely audible for much of the time, but the mezzo part is never given much interest in the score so this was no problem. Would that I could say the same of tenor Thomas Studebaker, who struggled to produce any tone at all during the Turkish music. Hanno Müller-Brachmann projected the bass’ music well enough, but he sang each syllable so separately that it was hard to believe Schiller’s Ode to Joy played any part in the work. Ditto the choir, whose woolly intonation and absence of legato was a disgrace.

Perhaps they were all following Masur’s instructions. But he did not seem in control some of the time, such as in the quartet’s first entrance, where co-ordination with the orchestra was non-existent. The audience was in raptures, but it seemed to me a wholly uninspired and disjointed annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.

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