BBC Proms 2016 / 37: BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform Brahms Symphony No. 4

I combined a long walk to Greenwich and back with listening back to last night’s Prom.

The sun was bright but the air, especially in the shade was cool and refreshing. I managed a respectable average of 17 minutes per mile. Sweat poured down my neck at central Blackheath. A state of mild euphoria was reached somewhere in Greenwich Park. Total walk 8 miles. Completed in 2 hours 33 minutes.  I will be thin again.

Last night’s Prom was 2 hours 30 minutes and its contents made it the perfect companion to my walk.

First, an entertaining discovery – Walton’s Partita. A hugely accessible and entertaining three-movement curtain raiser that had some members of BBC NOW’s string section feeling slightly under pressure.  The premiere of Huw Watkins cello concerto composed for his brother Paul wasn’t quite as absorbing as I thought it might be. It wasn’t difficult to listen to but, at the same time, I did notice that my mind wandered just a little.

It may be the case that I was gearing up for the interval feature. There was a time when Radio 3 used to produce quirky but rich content as an interval ‘escape’ for listeners. The Twenty Minutes strand sometimes picked up on a theme in the concert, had a direct link to the programme or in some cases, went off at a complete tangent. I rather liked them, a short extended radio package that could surprise and delight.

Now, the interval feature is always a discussion from the Proms Extra pre-performance talk pre-recorded an hour or so before the concert. Sometimes they’re really informative. Last night’s Proms Extra on Brahms 4th symphony was an event with a special significance. Robert ‘Bob’ Samuel joined Laura Tunbridge and presenter Martin Handley.

Bob was one of my tutors at university. He either taught me music harmony or musicology, I can’t remember which. What I do recall was how Bob, along with Alain Frogley, Roger Bray, Denis McCaldin, and a tall fusty-smelling man who taught me keyboard harmony whose name I can’t quite recall, were the dream team undergraduate music degree lecturers – a rare combination of skill, passion, experience, and knowledge in every single one.

I hadn’t heard Bob’s voice for 25 years or so. We’ve connected on Facebook but never met. I used to think I could recall his voice from my undergraduate days, but the voice that spoke knowledgeably of Brahms and Schumann playing chess came as a surprise. Far deeper than my memory recalls, though I recognised the enthusiasm for his subject, the ocassional turn of phrase and the love of detail.

It got me thinking about something I’ve often wondered: if I feel an appetite for the subject, why am I not going further with it and studying masters? The answer might be that I’m not entirely clear whether it would be of any use. Would it be worth the investment in time and how would I apply it in the future? What doors would it open?

Brahms 4 is a special piece. Rich and complex, there are rapturous almost modern depictions of pastoral landscapes with many of the hints of academia I appreciate in Brahms’ music. I don’t know exactly what those characteristics are – perhaps the broad brushes from a rich legato string section? But, they hasten the approaching autumn and the new school year. Brahms’ music never fails to satisfy. It doesn’t so much heal, rather than nourish. In that respect Brahms is quite close in musical effect on the soul as JS Bach is. Brahms is just a lot more German about it.

More importantly perhaps, it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ performance which stood out once again. The second consecutive night at the Royal Albert Hall and their final London appearance of this Proms season, the band has continued to go from strength to strength in recent years. I’ve always walked away from one of their concerts surprised.

Of all of the Corporation’s orchestras, I often wonder whether BBC NOW has to work harder at its UK-wide and global reputation. I’m not entirely sure why. It might be because in recent years their name has been associated with Doctor Who and other large-scale dramas, not in itself a negative thing on their CV, but in my conscientiousness it’s their TV work they’re known for before the more orthodox orchestral repertoire. One is not better or worse than the other, of course. If anything, the sign of a healthy orchestra in terms of finances and reach is surely that it covers lots of ground and reaches a variety of different audience groups.

For me, it’s when I hear them play with the kind of steeliness and grit of the kind I’ve heard over the last two Proms this season that I get to feeling really proud of them (odd given that I have nothing to do with them). Performances with them feel harder fought as a result. Brahms 4 was no exception. This performance bears closer scrutiny and repeat listens.

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