PROM 48: Matthias Pintscher as Composer and Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 48: Ravel, Pintscher, Stravinsky: Tine Thing Helseth, Marco Blaauw (trumpets); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.8.2013 (CC)

Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Pintscher: Chute d’étoiles (2012) London première
Stravinsky: The Firebird

Back in 2006, I heard Pintscher’s Cello Concerto, Reflections on Narcissus, at the Barbican, enjoying Pintscher’s sonic imagination but found that the piece rather outstayed its welcome. The same criticism applies – to a lesser extent, perhaps – to Chute d’étoiles (“Falling Stars”). This was the first London performance of Chute d’étoiles: the work was given its world première by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst in Lucerne in 2012. Pintscher is the BBC Scottish SO’s Artist-in-Residence, a progressive appointment and one that is to be celebrated, whatever my caveats below. Pintscher’s music is unashamedly modern, and he has a clear idea of what it is he wants to say. In 2007, a piece of sculpture by Anselm Keller was exhibited in Paris, at the Monumenta Exhibition. The aim of Keller’s work is to meditate on man’s relationship with the cosmos, and it is this that Pintscher took as his guiding principle. The two trumpet soloists were placed on either side of the rostrum. The low, brass-dominated opening was evidently meant to exhibit some sort of primordial force. If only it had not been heard in the course of a Proms season that so recently included Gubaidulina played by the LSO under Gergiev. In comparison, Pintscher’s depiction of cosmic forces was decidedly lily-livered (see my review of The Rider on the White Horse, Prom 41). The two trumpeters, both virtuosi, tackled their parts with aplomb. Hesketh is the more familiar name, but Blaauw has forged his credentials working with the likes of Stockhausen – he has been particularly associated with Michaels Reise and since 2003 has taught at the Stockhausen Courses Kürten. Hesketh’s restless stream of notes were the more precisely pitched and articulated, her slurs amazingly perfect given the speed at which she despatched them; the muted first gestures were excellent evidence of this. Blaauw’s articulation was just that touch less clean.

During the course of the piece, Pintscher exploited modernist techniques that, it is true, lend themselves to parody, such as tonguing through an un-pitched air stream rather than producing notes. Pintscher produced an effective “implosion” of the piece – there is no doubting his mastery of gesture. But it seemed clear his ear is less keen than Gubaidulina’s. With her, one sensed that everything was perfectly placed, each chord carefully balanced no matter what the (often extreme) dynamic. Despite high hopes, this was an interesting première, but not a vastly significant one.

The première was preceded by Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, granted a full dynamic range. This seemed well rehearsed: the festive moments were certainly unbuttoned, yet perhaps most impressive was the third movement, effectively a shadow of an Habañera. It functioned as our introduction to Pinscher, the conductor of music outside his own, and was, in retrospect, consistent with the impression of his own piece – a colourist with a fine, if not outstanding, ear. And colour is all-important, too, in Stravinsky’s heavily Rimsky-influenced Firebird, which was performed in the complete 1910 score. Here, though, there was something more. Pintscher seemed to exhibit a composer’s understanding of the piece, an impression somewhat analogous to what one hears when composer/conductors of the likes of Boulez or Salonen are in charge. This was a fine Firebird, opening with a no-nonsense approach that eschewed mystery, perhaps, but ushered in a performance of great intelligence. The score needs this, otherwise one is wont to sit around waiting for the big numbers. When they came they, too, like the rest, were well characterised without ever being wallowed in. The BBC Scottish orchestra should congratulate itself on the nimbleness of its playing, not least in the punchy ‘Infernal Dance’ though it was a shame that here the accents were inevitably dulled by the acoustic. There was some lovely solo playing, too, from leader Laura Samuel and principal bassoon Julian Roberts. But the performance worked because of an ensemble effort, and a clear affection for the conductor.

Colin Clarke