BBC Proms 2016 / 40: Beethoven 8 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1

Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 always takes me by surprise. Eight is the symphony I’m most unfamiliar with. It’s unusual in comparison to what has gone before. Musical ideas dart from one thing to another, speeds too. Textures are varied. It is advanced Beethoven, more so in my head than the choral symphony that follows it. It’s a work that demands repeat listens even if it doesn’t necessarily invite them.

Britten Sinfonia’s performance under the direction of Thomas Ades makes the process of revisiting the work less of chore, more of a pleasure. Their string playing under the leadership of Thomas Gould is taught, the articulation breathtakingly precise. Listen carefully for the gaps in between the notes – that’s what elevates this perception.

In the first movement it’s the earthy string textures that underpin smooth woodwind legatos that really give me goose bumps. The second movement is a strange affair musically, sort of balletic in places, in others almost too imitative of Haydn. Pleasant yet deceptively complex, there’s something about its playfulness that is just a little bit smug for my liking.

The Britten Sinfonia breathes life into the third – which could easily end up feeling a leaden – with a heart-warming lilt and equally sweet woodwind lines. The final movement is a rip-roaring demonstration of even faster articulation in the strings and woodwind, the pace of which intensifies as we head towards the symphony’s inevitable end. A bravura performance that illustrated something the Britten Sinfonia is often taken for granted for: its stamina.

This was the third time I’d heard this performance. I listened to it live on my way home after a walk back to Waterloo station, the next on my walk back into work this morning. These are the best time to concentrate on the performances and, to take my mind off the walking and the work that needs to be done. For one reason or another, I’ve found myself able to focus on the now a whole more easily when I combine the two, and focus on the actual work when I get to the office.

It feels like a number of different things have fallen into place over the past week or so, all of it with a constant soundtrack of classical music filling in the void.

The Prokofiev Classical Symphony was the other work I listened on the walk in this morning. The pain in my elbow appeared to have subsided (after I’d visited the doctor’s surgery again this morning and received a month’s worth of anti-inflammatories).

This and the fact that I had managed to really focus in on the music meant the inevitable middle-aged self-absorbed thing had started to occur as I walked along: I was punctuating loud chords with a clenched fist in the left hand, and the beginnings of delicate phrases with a forefinger in the right. I’d always considered people doing air-conducting as the ultimate kind of pretentious wannabe – a failed musician who was still clinging on to vague notions of being on the podium. Now it appears I’m doing it too. And, I don’t especially care either.

The Prokofiev is a satisfying work that, unlike the Beethoven, does invite repeat listens. It’s brimming with youthful exuberance. It’s clever in its tidiness and efficiency, but isn’t self-absorbed. It’s also sophisticated kind of pastiche in a way that transforms Britten’s Piano Concerto is a just a little too end-of-the-pier in comparison. But more than that, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony was my first introduction to the neo-classical style – an imitative yet respectful nod to a period of composition with just the right amount of the unexpected melodic and harmonic invention to keep me alert every time I hear it.

At the end of a demanding programme, the Britten Sinfonia didn’t let me down. This was a real highlight from this year.


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