BBC Proms Diary 2018: The Berlin Philharmonic, blissful articulation and oafish critics

I’ve totted up the number of posts I’ve written about the BBC Proms this year. I thought it was enough for a book. At best its a novella. And even that’s assuming someone would buy it and be interested enough to read it. That may seem like negativity on my part. It’s not intended that way. It’s just a reflection of the thoughts in my head as I write. What good is a diary if its not an authentic reflection of the author?

My memory of this year’s Proms season is that its triggered all sorts of negativity thinking and a good deal of pissing and moaning on my part. I could be wrong. I hope so. I know I set out saying I wanted to give air to the things I wouldn’t normally say out loud. I think I’ve done that. I’m just not sure its necessarily left me in a good place doing so. But as the season approaches its nominal end (there are still a month’s worth of concerts to catch up on I’m sure) I’m looking forward to reading back what I have posted. The Proms as one big reflecting-back exercise. Interesting.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s two-night appearance has whipped London into a frenzy. Kind of. Saw a lot of stuff on Twitter about it. One critic proclaimed that one of their performances was the finest he’d heard since X – where X refers to a year, a conductor and, presumably, an entirely different concert hall. I don’t understand why you’d even say that about a concert. It reads like an official announcement from the Critics Circle “because I say so, we can all conclude it was brilliant”. If not that then there’s a hint of showing off your prior knowledge, or your ability to recall a concert others may not remember and even fewer attended. Virtue signalling. There’s a lot of it about. I’ve spent the past twenty-fours trying to work out whether it was the same critic I saw fall asleep in an LSO concert at the Barbican with his notebook on his lap.

Radio 3 presenter Martin Handley was clearly excited by Yuja Wang’s blistering performance of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto on day one – I could hear it in his voice. This isn’t in itself a bad thing – though I’m still having to get used to the undeniable shift away from the presenter as concert reporter (and therefore adopting a neutral stance in relation to proceedings on stage) to wannabe active participant. Some almost pull it off with jocular enthusiasm, others miss the mark with unchecked self-indulgence. Martin Handley amongst a handful of others successfully treads the fine line between both.

And it was difficult to do anything else but go with the crowd after the Prokofiev Piano Concerto. A sparkling showstopper that quite rightly prompted the crowd to whoop with appreciation at the end. But it was Strauss’ Don Juan from the second Berlin Phil appearance, and Death and Transfiguration, that grabbed my attention. The woodwind in particular: as near perfection as I think you could get. Not a section of individual instruments but a group sounding as one voice. Delicate articulation. Precisely placed notes. Nothing awkward. Makes Igor Toronyi-Lalic’s clickbaity pronouncement about the Budapest Festival Orchestra look decidedly oafish in comparison.

Wasn’t entirely convinced about Beethoven 7 in the second half of the second Berlin Phil gig – a bit too prompt for my tastes, though it was very interesting to hear dramatic dynamic contrasts in sections I’d never heard them before. I always want the second movement to languish a little more. The marked shifts in speed in the last movement transformed something familiar into an arresting experience. I may need to listen to the entire thing to be completely bought in though the timpani part and the grinding bass line in the final bars of the last movement are electrifying.

Listened back to Mahler 3 from the Boston Symphon and Andris Nelsons. That uncomfortable interview he did with WGBH seems a world away now. It was less than 12 months ago. How quickly time has passed.

Mahler has taken on a new significance this year. Quite unexpectedly, an old school friend who I’ve reconnected with a few years back when I was at the BBC, ended up hearing Mahler for the first time this season. She explained how she was ‘blown away’ by Mahler 5. I remember the same feeling when I first ‘got Mahler’ – music that insists on the listener adopting an entirely different approach from any other music, I’ve always thought. Almost as though the listener has to surrender to everything and be a part of whatever is being performed. There is a blissful sense of abandon whenever I hear a Mahler symphony now. And this year, I discover that someone from school has had a similar transformative experience listening to Mahler’s music. That creates an additional layer of loveliness on the whole experience – a strange connection with a friend embarking on a similar journey I did a few years back.

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