BBC Proms 2016 / 13: Beethoven 9

A post-Brexit performance of Beethoven 9: one long break-up song or a positive reaffirmation of the universal human spirit?

On paper Prom 13 was going to be tricky.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a series of musical ideas that triggers important memories of European travels I’ve made over the years. It’s been there during teenage visits to Berlin, a lightning visit to Luxembourg, and trips to Switzerland. It’s supported me on excursions to Latvia, Lithuania, Spain, France, and Portugal.  Beethoven 9 has accompanied everywhere in Europe. And on the day of the UK referendum, it was the soundtrack of my early morning flight from Glasgow to London.

I thought at the time how odd it would be to listen to the symphony in the event of the UK voting to leave. That which had been an unofficial anthem of the European Union might subsequently turn out to be nothing more than a break-up song, a soundtrack to a long and rather messy divorce. One I’d get to hear every single year.

The first year is always the toughest, right? That’s what they say.

As it turned out, tonight’s Beethoven 9 was reaffirming.

The heartbreaking beauty of the third movement – a long final goodbye – had the unexpected effect of bringing me as an individual, closer to Europe.

It’s not a break-up song at all, at least not right now. Instead, it’s a musical statement of a greater sense of humanity. A personal pledge to fellow citizens not just in Europe but beyond. Come the final movement, the Ode to Joy still sounded celebratory. It transported me somewhere joyous. And while some might regard that as ridiculous, I’m happy to admit I’m relieved. I didn’t want Beethoven 9 ruined by the UK referendum. And it hasn’t been.

BBC Proms 2016 / 11: Walküre and Tippett’s Child of our Time

Writing about Wagner or choral works are a bit of a nightmare.
You need to know the works inside out so you can reference the various signposts in what you’re writing about. If there aren’t any signposts then everything just presents itself as a bit of an amorphous blob.

Fortunately, there is another way to talk about tonight’s Prom: by using the emotions the music triggered in me. And at various those emotions were unexpected, sometimes indescribable, but all of them exquisite. 

The final scene of Die Walküre, the first half of tonight’s Prom felt familiar, reassuring and still gratifyingly rich. A lot of that is down to the tremendous introduction I had to the work in Budapest earlier this year. A special time.

Tonight’s performance of the last scene of Die Walküre by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth gave me the chance not only to revisit happy memories but also to go deeper with the music. 

And as I did so, I overlooked the promised conclusion implicit in Wagner’s writing: that much-needed nearly understated climax that creeps up on you unexpected and gives you the release you hadn’t realised I needed. 

Wagner’s music is now fast becoming a drug. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.

Tippett’s The Child of Our Time was a moving experience. There was a bleakness to his writing – a surprising lushness to his scoring too. I expected him to be more like Britten. Now I’ve had an introduction to Tippett’s seminal work, I’m now wishing Britten had had the balls to be more daring in his writing. My childhood hero now seems a little tame in comparison. 

My overwhelming impression of the work is how unexpectedly timely it felt. There is a realism to it which is neither over-indulgent nor superficial. 

Its origins – inspired by a pre-WW2 shooting of a Naxi diplomat by a Jew – might at first seem dated. But the universal messages – a grim struggle between the horrors of reality and a vague sense of hope – still resonate today. It’s music which doesn’t have the answers, but explains reality in such a way you can reconcile yourself with it. At least that’s how I heard. And I was grateful for it too.

That experience of hearing it for the first time makes Child of Our Time an incredibly important composition for me as a listener. And judging by the warm prolonged applause in the hall tonight, a lot of that was down to the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales.

BBC Proms 2016 / 9: Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony

It’s hot. Very hot. Not so hot that I have to move from one place to another walking like an elderly man who’s lost his walking aid, but just hot enough to know that simple tasks like watering the plants or cutting the grass will cause me to break out in a heavy, unappealing sweat. And I’ve only just had a shower, which is why I’ve got my husband to do the garden chores instead.

The weather is perfect for listening back to last night’s Prom. In particular Mendelssohn’s blistering ‘Italian’ Symphony played by period instrument band Le Cercle de l’Harmonie. Conductor Jérémie Rhorer, like the orchestra he directed, made the work his own, commanding the orchestra at a lightning pace. Make a point of listening to the crisp woodwind articulation in the first and fourth movements of the symphony – something to behold.

The sparse string sound (sometimes recordings from the 1980s, for example, can over-sentimentalise the opening melodic subject) combined with the rawness of the lower wind also conveyed a different kind of Italy from the cliché perhaps we all have in our heads when we think of the country. Not so much coastlines searing in the heat, more, lush alpine hillsides, exuberant greens and blues pulsating in the sunshine. This was a far more pastoral opening movement than I’ve ever heard before – the alpine calls made more distinctive by the period sounding bassoons and horns.

I adore this symphony which is why perhaps I listen to it more intently than I would others. For me, the second movement lacked the mysteriousness I’ve come to expect as a result of listening to a lot of recordings of the work. I wanted the dry wandering bass line in the celli and bass to be more of a smooth line over which the flutes could lay their haunting melody. But the staccato bass line at the beginning of the movement made more sense with the glorious legato in the counter-subject which followed. And it might even have been the case that come the end, the optimum articulation had been found.

The third movement shimmered like something far away on the horizon shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Low strings with high melodic lines in the woodwind gave proceedings a delicious clarity. And with that a sense of joy, similar to that I experience when I see on a summer’s evening south London from my bathroom window, Crystal Palace tower on the horizon piercing the sky.

The real fireworks were undoubtedly left until the last movement. This was the fastest I’ve ever heard this movement played. So fast at times that I was almost certain that, on occasions, things were pulled back a little just for the sake of safety. The articulation in the wind was a stunning technical demonstration which transformed proceedings into a breath-taking treat. Exuberance abounded, so too a commitment to subvert expectations with sudden moments of dynamic sophistication.

It could have been all too easy to wow everyone with a performance which went at break-neck speed. But Le Cercle de l’Harmonie managed something far more nuanced. The period sound and textures gave the quieter sections of this movement a human quality – as though we were all of us by Mendelssohn’s side experiencing his Grand Tour with him. That gave the work a sense of immediacy I’ve not heard before.

Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Jérémie Rhorer are exciting musicians who are committed to playing with great energy, enthusiasm, and precision. That is something to cherish and not take for granted.

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