BBC Proms 2016 / 17: Brahms Symphony No. 1

It’s not been an easy day. In fact, it’s been quite tough.

The seed of today’s problem was sown yesterday. It took root, sprouted, and blossomed this morning. Come lunchtime, post-harvest, I felt like I’d spent the entire morning chewing on a nettle.

The problem was resolved swiftly, but the taste lingered in my mouth as I sat in the BBC’s One Show studio, waiting to interview these two.

That’s why Brahms 1 conducted by Roger Norrington at the BBC Proms tonight seemed like the perfect antidote.

Brahms succeeds where plenty of other composers before and after have spectacularly failed. His musical depiction of angst and torment (or twenty-something self-absorption) is as relevant to me now as it was the first time I heard it as a teenager. Each successive movement ushers the listener towards redemption, vindication or, at the very least, hope.

The triumphant fourth movement might at first, compared to what has gone before, seem trite to some. It never has to me. There’s always been a sense of forgiveness in it: a sort-of long-forgotten General Studies lesson in how to be kind to yourself when things have gone a bit shit.

In the space of half-an-hour Brahms seems to capture everything and offer an alternative at the end of it. The composer is widely regarded as the greatest symphonist, and with very good reason.

Sir Roger Norrington achieved a great thing at the BBC Proms tonight at the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra’s final gig.

Norrington’s period instrument recording of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 remains a landmark creation. But tonight’s performance contained some trademark Norrington flourishes including string player slides, and prominent timpani and bass. An unexpected embellishment was the muted horn buzzing in the background.

I’m not entirely convinced whether this souped-up performance added anything. If I was to be really pedantic (it does come naturally so, you know, please forgive) I prefer the period interpretation. I wanted more angst. I wanted more grinding, all-consuming bass-lines. I wanted things to feel like heavy weather from time to time. At times the sparse textures meant there wasn’t as much light and shade as I felt I needed. Brahms 1 should be heavy weather, so the resolution at the end of it feels hard-earned.

But, there was sufficient trademark Norrington in this electrifying performance. It dramatised the day’s proceedings, and dealt with them too.

This will, I’m in no doubt, be one of the highpoints of this year’s BBC Proms.

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