Friday, 30 July 2010

Prom 17: SCO/Boyd - Mozart and Dvořák, 29 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Dvořák – Serenade in D minor, for wind instruments, violoncello, and double bass, op.44, B.77

Mozart – Serenade no.10 in B-flat major, for thirteen instruments, KV 361/370a

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Douglas Boyd (conductor)

This late-night Prom was to have been conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, featuring two particular loves of his: Dvořák and Mozart. One might add a third: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of which he had long been Conductor Laureate. For a programme of music for wind ensemble, it was not unfitting that Mackerras’s replacement should be another former oboist, Douglas Boyd.

The first of two works on the programme was Dvořák’s D minor Serenade. Its first movement is marked Moderato, quasi marcia. One certainly heard a strong impression of the march, even if Boyd was somewhat on the fast side for Moderato; nevertheless, the tempo worked well enough. There was nothing small-scale about the interpretation, which had a welcome sense of the symphonic to it. Particularly striking were the SCO’s grainy bassoons (Peter Whelan and Alison Green). The second movement flowed nicely; if its trio was a touch fussy, it was despatched with panache. I cannot claim to find the main body of the slow movement especially compelling: it comes and goes, and would doubtless make for superior background music. However, the agitated middle section intriguingly presented intimations of Mahler. There was an infectious sense of countryside music-making to the finale. At times, it perhaps sounded a little too ‘conducted’, though this aspect came into its own with the march reminiscence from the first movement.

The masterpiece on the programme was, of course, Mozart’s Gran Partita. My reservations here were usually concerned with tempi – and also, I am afraid, with the use of natural horns, which simply cannot play in tune to the expectations of modern ears and which must also uncomfortably resort to rasping. Valves were invented for a very good reason. The Largo introduction to the first movement was full of promise, perhaps a touch moulded by Boyd, but I should not exaggerate. The Molto allegro was properly lively, with clear counterpoint, if again a little too obviously ‘conducted’. Minuets – the second and fourth movements – were brisk, but not unreasonably so; again clarity was commendable. The second trio of the first minuet brought an extremely noticeable fluff from one of the natural horns, but those of the second minuet could certainly swing. In between those movements comes the sublime Adagio. Boyd’s was not my idea of an Adagio, nor was it Furtwängler’s in his incomparable Vienna Philharmonic recording, but if one could take the Andante approach, there was some beautiful playing to hear from the SCO: less blended than, say, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but graininess has its own rewards. The ‘flowing’ – a current ‘period’ euphemism for fast – tempo certainly fitted with Boyd’s conception, outlined in a brief pre-performance discussion, of the movement as an aria in an overtly operatic work. It was beautiful, however, rather than profound: no metaphysics here. I was taken aback to hear the Adagio section of the fifth movement taken slower than I could recall hearing previously. Unfortunately, it sounded laboured, since Boyd gave the impression of hearing it on a bar-to-bar, sometimes even a beat-to-beat, basis; the longer line was lacking. There was great contrast with a fast, driven Allegretto, which would have benefited from time to breathe. The bubbly theme and variations that followed was, however, quite delightful. Here a longer line was discernible, save for a somewhat choppy minor key variation. Then came the finale. Molto allegro is generally an extremely difficult tempo to bring off in Mozart. The modern tendency is to drive too hard: not in itself so much a matter of tempo. Boyd did not entirely avoid this trap, but I have heard worse. All in all, a mixed performance, then, but there remained much to enjoy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What does 'grainy' mean in the context of bassoons? Can't find dictionary definition that makes sense of it.

Thanks.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for the comment, or rather enquiry. It is one of those things that is quite tricky to put into words, although one knows it when one hears it. I should hazard: something a little more rural, rustic, than the clearer 'French' sound of the instrument, something with a bit more grit in the oyster, if you will forgive the metaphor. When typing 'grainy bassoon' into Google, it comes up with a host of examples, though they do not seem to be definitions, as such. Anyway, the following might give a sense:

'The Pittsburgh Orchestra may lack velvety plushness - but that is no disadvantage in a Sibelian soundscape. They have the advantage of dark, articulate lower strings, delightfully grainy bassoons, trombones as black as a pine forest and brilliant, blazing horns.'

From a programme note for the Mozart serenade: 'A second minuet, lighter than the first, invites us to return to earth. Again there are two sharply contrasted trios. The first, another piece of unsocial social music, takes us into the darkness of B-flat minor. The second, in F major, is a touch of country dance music and the genial melody, three octaves deep in oboe, basset horn, and bassoon, sounds wonderfully grainy and flavorful against its oom-pa-pa accompaniment.'

'...fast fluctuations within the sound such as in the "grainy" sound of a deep bassoon tone...'

'This time the grainy arcato on bass is malevolent, obsessive and ominous. .... hosting a concordant, ashy veil of bassoon, cello and violin.'

I hope this might help...