More years ago than I care to remember (OK, about ten), Edward Moore, my piano teacher at university, told me he used to be a great fan of Maurizio Pollini, but had grown disenchanted with him because he thought his playing had become completely dry, overly safe and devoid of emotion. Perhaps because he was by far the best teacher I’d ever had, I took this opinion seriously and allowed it to influence my perception of Pollini ever after, remaining a devout sceptic despite his evidently immense popularity.
Years before I ever picked up any of their books, I was fascinated by the idea of the ‘Lost Generation’ of American writers in Paris between the World Wars; now that I’ve actually read The Great Gatsby, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and even a couple of Anaïs Nin’s books (Gertrude Stein’s going to have to wait, though), I felt I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear this UK premiere of the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s piece inspired by Nin’s relationships with several of her many lovers from that time—among them her father.
The Southbank’s annual Ether Festival, exploring innovative and multi-disciplinary approaches to contemporary music, includes this year a Xenakis weekend (perhaps timed to mark the tenth anniversary of the composer’s death), of which this concert is a part; following the Barbican’s “Total Immersion” day dedicated to him two years ago, there seems to be a bit of a vogue for Xenakis in London at the moment. I’m no aficionado, but have always been intrigued by his unique background as an architect and mathematician who applied the same structural principles to composition, and grateful that the resulting music doesn’t sound remotely as sterile as one might imagine — in fact far less so, to my mind, than what one might call the pseudo-mathematical approach of total serialism.
Ship of state. In his long lifetime, which spanned the buggy whip and the atom bomb, Henry Moore’s sculptures were never derided for being “lumpy, swollen, etiolated, hunched, extruded, squashed, and dismembered” by anyone who championed modern art. Such disdain has been saved for our time. The quote is from a London daily’s art critic on the opening of Tate Britain’s large Moore exhibit, and she has no patience for the artist’s repetitiveness, lack of originality, overproduction (the museum culled over a hundred sculptures and drawings from a possible 11,000), endless borrowing from his betters (particularly Picasso), ubiquity as a favorite of corporations and colleges that need to art up the place (my college boasts a large, expensive Moore outside my old dorm), and so on. Such are the whines of twerpdom, which every iconic artist endures as the generations change. The only exception I can think of is the Teflon-coated reputation of Cezanne.
Dandies and philosophers. I hate the use of the word “warhorse” to describe beloved music that is taxed by being overly familiar. But almost nobody refers to the Bruch violin concerto in any other way. It’s a frayed Victorian valentine, relying on luscious melody, the scent of heliotrope, and moonlight over the Tyrol as its claim to fame. The young French violinist Renaud Capuçon accepted this without a blush or smirk. He was determined to give a reading as gorgeously romantic as taste would allow. His success centered on a honeyed but never syrupy tone. More than that, he knew how to blend into the orchestral strings, which served not to drown him out but to amplify his sound. (Here I think Capuçon was taking advantage of the three years when he served as first among equals as concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra.)
The recent news of Angela Gheorghiu’s impending divorce from Roberto Alagna may give some clue as to why this performance, part of the South Bank’s second ‘International Voices’ season, was postponed from its planned date of 2nd October. In the interim she has also, in the role of her accompanying tenor, swapped the American up-and-comer James Valenti, due to co-star with her in next year’s Covent Garden La Traviata, for her compatriot Marius Manea, who she has performed with several times already this year. The conductor Ion Marin made it three out of three for Romanians in the principal roles of the evening, here conducting the Philharmonia.
Wunderkindfest. Unless you are a stubborn opinionator, performances can confuse you at times. I was flummoxed last night at the Proms by Gustavo Dudamel and his Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, in a concert I was expecting to enjoy, though not to the utmost. The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique wore out its welcome many years ago, and only a brilliant performance can redeem it for me. That Dudamel did not deliver. Sparkling as he is in the bright media limelight, the skyrocketing young Venezuelan has to have the goods, too. In this case, his reading was flat, disjointed, and plodding, with a drawn-out Scene aux champs that lasted long enough for Madame Defarge to knit a quilt. The guillotine movement that followed was coarse and blatty, which is how the whole reading went, either in slow mo with exaggerated emphases or sped up recklessly. Dudamel’s inability to sustain tension in soft passages, one of the most blatant failings in a bad conductor, shocked me.