BBC Proms 2017 / 4: Birtwistle Deep Time / Elgar Symphony No. 2

I didn’t listen to Prom 4 in its entirety last night. I was tired. Ratty.

At one point I’d even disappeared into a bit of a black hole, running over things in my head over and over again. The process was useful – there was a lot to scribble down in my notebook – and at the same time draining.

That was why I found it difficult to focus my attention on the Prom and specifically on Birtwistle’s Deep Time.

I commented on this with my former music teacher from school. I’m friends with him on Facebook. He was listening on the radio.

“Found it ponderous,” I say to him. “Didn’t want to say to begin with. Birtwistle is so heralded that to disagree seems like blasphemy. But it did seem ponderous.”

Only later did I discover that Birtwistle’s godson – also a Facebook friend of my former music teacher – was also participating in the thread, and had presumably read the exchange.

Oops. Bad Jon.

I resolved to be a little more ‘gentle’ today. An odd thing to decide upon given that I am, as my husband puts it, ‘on holiday’. A few emails, made supper for when The Chap comes home, plus some bread. After which, I settled down on the sofa, with Faero, to listen to the entire work again.

Birtwistle’s Deep Time was, on a second listen, hugely engaging. You can’t help but lock-in to his way of thinking when his pre-performance interview contains such a concise and evocative description of the work he’s crafted. Be sure to listen.

In fact, in some ways, I wonder whether it might be better to just be done with the Radio 3 presenter when there’s a new work being performed and have the composer (if they’re alive) to be in the commentary box.

The Birtwistle was absorbing. Evocative. The work had a depth to it that made it feel like we were visiting somewhere. As though we had free reign in a large rambling house high on a hill. Free to discover its secrets without fear of coming to any harm.

There were terrifying moments. The crazed clarinet (and later saxophone) solo was a particular example. Out of control, lary perhaps. Far from being a hostile world, it was somewhere I wanted to escape to.

What a difference 18 hours makes.

The Elgar was a revelation. Symphony No.2 is a man saying farewell, rejecting the sentimentality and jingoism that still makes his name, and replacing it with something far more three-dimensional.

A blistering, triumphant celebration, followed by an expansive second movement that still manages to be intensely intimate. A restless and sometimes tortured and exhilarating third movement after that. The fourth revealed an unexpected delight: a temporary resolution of the tension I hadn’t realised had been presented in the work before, similar to my first experience of Wagner out in Budapest. Finished the work feeling wrung-out. I didn’t know Elgar could do that.

Little wonder then, after an encore of Elgar’s Nimrod, and that speech, things got a little bit sobby (by this time, around 4.30pm this afternoon).

Little wonder too that Barenboim’s words resonated the way they did. Barenboim knows how to programme. He knows what the audience wants, feels, and doesn’t want and feel. He knows it instinctively and then, through a speech, ramps things up even further.

I’d normally be self-deprecating and say I had been drinking too much wine. But this was 4.30pm. Barenboim’s speech lanced a boil. Like Jessica Duchen says, Barenboim was right. That’s why it worked. That’s why it was necessary. That’s why his words were appreciated.

But more than that, it makes me ponder some unexpected thoughts. Why aren’t we hearing more of what a conductor thinks and feels, spoken from the podium? Sure, orchestras have a voice – that’s their bread and butter. That’s what we pay them for.

But when a conductor speaks, that which seems distant to some suddenly appears human. It’s good to hear an orchestra – or an artist – speak in that way. Maybe speaking up a bit (in a different language) is all the ‘classical music’ world needs to do to contribute to the narrative.

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