BBC Proms 2016 / 7: Faure’s Shylock and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella

It’s no good listening to classical music on a short walk – not unless you know you can listen to the entire work in the time it takes you to complete the walk. If the work is too long, you’re going to face that tricky situation of killing the playback during something unfinished.

And that’s not good. When I’d finished the walk from my hotel to the training centre yesterday morning, the eagerness to listen to the rest of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was suddenly lost.

When I embarked on the walk back at the end of the day, I wanted to listen to the news, not a concert – I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Now, one day later, catching up from the start feels like a massive undertaking.

Such is the danger of missing a live Prom in the first place. For me, even the time period for iPlayer catch-up is limited.

No such problem for last night’s Prom.

The inevitable mid-training course question had arisen during a much-needed tea-break. “What shall we all do this evening?” asked one obvious extrovert. “What’s with the ‘we’?” I thought. “Wouldn’t it be great if we all went out tonight?” she continued. “That’s a closed question,” I replied smugly, “and I’ll counter it with a ‘Would it?’”

That will come across as a whole lot colder in print, than it was in person. There were sniggers all around, as it happens. More importantly, it did get the message across. I want to be alone.

I settled in the Shore Bar, next to Bristol Harbour. I ordered dressed crab on Guinness bread, followed by a 6oz burger, watched a short BBC Three film about the loneliness of trucking, before settling down to a quiet evening in a deathly quiet bar listening to Prom 7 and watching Henrik Stenson win The Open in silence.

I don’t display a similar kind of commitment to the rest of Radio 3’s live concerts throughout the year. The Proms’ are special, of course. The atmosphere concocted by the unwitting audience and masterful sound engineers who make what I hear on the radio a joyous indulgence.

An authentic representation of the UK’s classical music scene exists outside of the Proms, broadcast live most nights on Radio 3 – a demonstration of what UK orchestras do throughout the year.

At the end of every Proms season I always commit to pay as much attention to Live in Concert as I do to every Proms gig. But that commitment eventually trails off. Guilt inevitably follows. Sometimes I’ve come close to emailing Radio 3 to apologise for my slackness. That’s how much it stings.

The opening movement of Faure’s Shylock Suite sounded surprisingly simplistic. Sweet as the melody was, there was something a little irritating about its contrived regal quality. The second movement with the tenor solo seemed like trademark Faure, so too the daring harmonies underpinning an expansive melody in the third movement. From this moment it sounded like proper Faure: unapologetically romantic-sounding, but lacking any self-importance or self-indulgence. The sixth movement is undoubtedly worth paying close attention to: gripping; breezy; efficient writing; youthful.
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite stirred up all sorts of memories.

Denis McCaldin, who ran the conducting and orchestration module of my music degree, also taught a course on the history of the chamber orchestra, shared a passion for the emerging period performance scene and the music of Haydn. Denis’ enthusiasm was infectious: a forensic attention to Stravinsky’s hard-working orchestration.

I remember Pulcinella being slightly disjointed, crammed full of melodic misdirection, and utterly fascinating orchestrations – the second movement in particular.

But the real shock to the system was hearing the Toccata – a section of Pulcinella I was first introduced to by Classic FM – specifically their drive-time show that used the brass sequence as a music bed. (I’m not entirely sure whether they still do. I haven’t listened to the station since they’d turned me down for a job I interviewed for there.) So, here I am listening to Stravinsky on Radio 3, thinking of Classic FM and trying desperately to work out why it was I’d applied for the job in the first place – an odd Proms-listening experience.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater was interesting. By this point I’d returned to the hotel room, catching up on emails and a handful of outstanding tasks. I half-listened to proceedings. But, what I heard sounded very 1950s-Hollywood film score and, in that respect, hugely accessible. It was a far more tempting proposition to return to than Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis the night before.

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