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.

Thoroughly Good Podcast 3.8: Fearing Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Why would anyone fear Elgar’s Cello Concerto? It’s lovely, after all. Well, maybe because of Jacqueline du Pre. Maybe she’s the one to blame. Her landmark recording and the prestige it helped her acquire makes the prospect of a live performance of the concerto a potentially disappointing affair.

Listen via Audioboom, via download, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. Previous episodes available here

BBC Proms 2016 / 2: Exsultate Domine and Faure

I didn’t go to the Albert Hall tonight. Yesterday’s school reunion took more of a toll than I anticipated it would. Post lunchtime bath I fell asleep drying off on the bed. I woke up four hours later. That was Sunday gone. A weekend of reminisces and extended much-needed dozing.

I listened to the first half via BBC iPlayer Radio and watched the second half on TV. I sat next to a cat overwhelmed by the humidity in the air,  me observing my other half laughing heartily at a Frankie Boyle stand-up on Netflix. The earbuds I bought in Budapest are pretty special: when I listened to Radio 3 I could hear nothing but Sara Mohr-Pietsch, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and assembled voices.

The broadcasting element of the Proms is what I think I love best. When radio works at its very best it’s incredibly addictive. That’s when I’m waiting for the hours to pass so I can switch on whatever device I’m going to listen to and attend whatever the event actually is.  I’m a sucker for live relays – that’s my weakness. In these moments, I marvel at how technology can make it possible for me to listen to something happening about 45 minutes away from me on public transport. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of that experience. Next time I go to the Albert Hall I might try listening on an FM radio at the same time. I understand that’s what the Test Match Special nerds do too.

In that respect alone, the Proms is an introvert’s paradise for me. The summer is my own personal holiday, one that I can turn on or off whenever I want. And when I’m there I’m calmer. I felt it on Friday night at the Albert Hall. The stresses and strains of the working week (much of it probably self-imposed) dissipated. The BBC Proms as a music festival feels like home. That sense of togetherness is heightened when I’m sat in a packed auditorium. And once I’ve experienced that just once in South Kensington, the live radio relays effortlessly conjur up the memory of that hall-bound experience.

Tonight’s concert was a varied one. On paper it risked being populist and popular: Mozart’s Exsultate Domine (made famous in my lifetime by Kiri Te Kanawe singing at Prince Charles and Diane Spencer’s wedding in the early 80s), Haydn’s Paukenmesse, Faure’s Pavane, Cantique de Jean Racine, and Requiem.

In practice it was exquisitely executed, catapulting far beyond the wallpaper status the likes of Faure’s music sometimes occupies present-day. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment – often starkly represented on the Royal Albert Hall stage – played with beautiful precision, remaining close to the beat marked out by conductor Stephen Cleobury.

Lucy Crowe shone with shimmering vibratos and a bell-like tone, devoid of the mawkish sentimentality often relied upon by sopranos desperate to re-create the florid performance which secured the work’s popularity in the 80s.

The concert’s real high-point was the second half. Faure’s music can come across a little creepy, most evident in the orchestral arrangement of his Pavane. Like Elgar, Faure has melancholy pretty much off pat, but the Pavane lacks any hint of redemption. And what that means is that it needs to be handled carefully, just so the implicit hint of menace in the melody doesn’t get out of hand. And I suspect that because the Pavane landed with such a sense of creepiness to it that Cleobury had pulled off something special in tonight’s performance: I’d not heard it in that way before.

Where Faure triumphs is in the like of Cantique de Jean Racine. I sang it as a kid in the school choir – just chorus and piano. The orchestral arrangement risks mawkish sentimentality. The florid harp, in particular, needs to be kept under control otherwise we risk listening to something other-worldly and, worst-case scenario, musically irrelevant. What saves it is Faure’s breathtaking harmonic progressions. There remains an uplifting sense of joy buried deep in Cantique. It is the finest balance of melancholy and celebration.

Faure’s Requiem from the OAE under Stephen Cleobury was a triumph. Where Haydn’s ‘protest mass against war’ seemed disconnected in its politeness, Faure’s mass for the dead successfully juxtaposes beauty and horror without resorting to ugly extremes or fawning deference. There was a haunting vulnerability in the voices, sometimes extreme, which made the musical proposition all the more bittersweet.

This work should be listened to in full uninterrupted and free of distractions. That way you’ll feel the force of the glorious brass and the terrifying suspended violin solo in the Sanctus. And after that, the breathtaking vocal talent of boy soprano Thomas Hopkins who, without any shadow of a doubt, stole the show when he sang the Pie Jesu.

BBC Proms 2016 / 1: Tchaikovsky, Elgar & Prokofiev

The First Night of the Proms is an occasion. It’s the beginning of summer. It’s a musical promise. It’s reuniting with an old friend. It’s also, as of this year, an excuse to make a bit of an effort. I made mine by ironing my best white shirt, donning my best Dockers and brown leather boots, and finishing off my ‘effortless’ meeja-luvvy look with a smart/casual jacket. Colleagues commented how smart I looked. “Oh of course,” said one, “it’s the First Night, isn’t it.”

In truth, events in Nice late last night overshadowed things today. I felt guilty about anticipating the start of the season. The Proms seemed almost frivolous in comparison to what now as saddening as it is familiar. There needed to be some reference to France, I thought. But given that the programme tonight was mostly Russian, that was going to be difficult.

The powers that be – a combined effort of conductor, orchestra and broadcaster, I imagine – came up with the goods. The opening chords of La Marseillaise took me by surprise. So too, for a split second, everyone else in the auditorium. From the stalls, I saw one man get up from his seat; I followed suit.

I’m normally rather cynical about the acts of pilgrimage, the outpouring of grief on social media, or the worldwide light shows. But, on this occasion, I appreciated the gesture. Someone somewhere had anticipated how I and a great many others would be feeling and combined that with a desire to show solidarity with a country coming to terms with yet another horrific attack.

In these unsettling times, those few minutes hearing the French national anthem not only showed respect but promoted a new feeling we all need to get more accustomed to. We are citizens of the world.

More than, the simple act of solidarity illustrated how the Proms can reflect what’s going on around it. In doing so we were reminded that classical music wasn’t a bubble but could, as and when required, respond to unexpected events.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture didn’t sound all that Russian, not tonight. Sakari Oramo conjured up something both chilling and rapturous. It’s unusual for an overture to command such attention – it’s normally the warm-up before the main event.

In comparison, the Elgar felt small and intimate, musically lacking the bold defiance I felt I needed tonight. I suspect my appreciation of the work is constantly spoilt by Jacqueline du Pre’s benchmark recording from the 60s. That said, Sol Gabetta’s performance was transcendent in parts – the third movement in particular, where both soloist and conductor exploited the pianissimos and left us hanging.

The Prokofiev cantata was similarly dramatic. Musically, things don’t hot up until the fourth movement. Sometime after that, I’m sure I heard the title number from Phantom of the Opera, which makes me wonder whether Andrew Lloyd Webber has a soft spot for the Russian composer. The conclusion comes good, however. Bombast and celebration abounded.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra continue playing to great effect under Sakari Oramo. The stars that shone were, undoubtedly, the BBC Symphony Chorus.

 

Blogging for 10 years

Today is an auspicious day. Not only is it the day the UK second female Prime Minister has started her first full day in her new job, but it’s also ten years to the day that I started blogging.

Where has the time gone? 2006 feels like it was yesterday: Brian Kay’s Light Programme on Radio 3;  my arm done up in a sling following a road traffic accident; and,  a short film admitting to my weakness for printer ink. I look at pictures of myself then and wonder whether the weight gain is down to age or my ongoing weakness for red wine.

Like Merlot, the BBC Proms has been a constant feature of my blogs over the ten years I’ve been writing them. They’ve always been, what I describe as, unorthodox. Why make a feature of what you know, when one of the most unappealing characteristics of the thing you love are the many people all too eager to demonstrate their knowledge and informed experience.

That’s why I have – for the most part – written about the point where classical music connects with the otherwise banal detail of everyday life. The post about listening to the Proms whilst dealing with a house-wide flea infestation was especially successful – one of my most popular blogs to-date.

Writers need a narrative arc – something to pin their ramblings on. The Proms is the ideal framework. That which is central to my ongoing experience of classical music is the perfect excuse for writing: it gives daily inspiration for blogging at the same time as deepening my experience of the thing I love.

If it’s this blog’s 10th birthday, then that also means the approaching Proms season will be the tenth I’ve written about. So what to write about this year? Like any good piece of journalism (?) there are questions which need to be answered.

How has the Proms changed in the years I’ve slavishly followed it, and how has it changed me? What is my relationship with the Proms now and how do I identify with it? How has my perception and understanding of it changed, and how has it deepened my appreciation of classical music as a result?

Some things must remain the same on this blog in the coming weeks: the way in which those questions are answered has to illustrate the way in which classical music is part of my life as a listener or consumer. Plenty of other people can tell you about the hard facts about a work, or a composer, or an artist (and take the responsibility for them when they’re not correct). What I’m interested in showing is that place or moment in time when the Proms interfaces with my life that’s what is personal, authentic, and ultimately distinctive.

At the end of it all there’ll be a big party with music and balloons, streamers and speeches. Before that point, there are 74+ other concerts to feast on. It’s time for summer to get underway.