Remembering Grenfell Tower

The unimaginable terror of being trapped in a burning tower block hangs low this week.

Displaced residents search in desperation for missing loved ones. The rest of us look on the high-rise tomb on Latimer Road – a now potent monument to inequality, and ineffective leadership. We ponder what part we played in permitting this state of affairs.

Music-making tradition often seeks to reflect on tragic moments in the performance of meaningful works – classical music’s way to pay respect.

But what works? And how to remember?

The Problem with Elgar

Elgar seems trite in his noble aspiration, a musical representation of the detachment this tragedy highlights. That residents feel so angry at their lack of support in the days after such brutal loss that they march on council offices and Downing Street, then the country hangs his head ashamed. If we can’t get that right, we’re going to find it difficult to look people in the eye across the world with pride, hope, or even regret.

Elgar feels like an anachronism right now.

Mahler 9 – Fourth Movement, Adagio

The adagio from Mahler’s 9th symphony acts a twenty-five exploration of our place in all of this. Painful, torturous beauty. A meditation that highlights a complex mix of thoughts and feelings in response to the stories which have unfolded since Wednesday 14 June.

Stitched into every melodic line is sorrow, regret, and determination. The solo violin around five minutes in, is exquisitely channelled rage of the kind I’ve heard in the voices of commentators and journalists all this week.

Strauss and Britten

Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen written in the closing months of the second world war, establishes a sombre mood but concludes with an ill-fitting sense of resolution.

The Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on the other hand, maintains an emotional incongruity throughout, and in true Britten style it’s finished just as we recognise it’s healing effects.

Brahms German Requiem

The exquisite but restless opening of Brahms’ German Requiem brings a much-needed moment of calm, underpinned by a sleeping giant that could, if provoked, rise up in retribution. “Blessed are they who bear suffering” sings the chorus.

The restlessness continues in the solemn funeral march Brahms wrote for the second movement of the requiem “For all flesh, it is as grass”. And here the anguish of those who are left behind come into play: a funeral march for those who will never be identified or whose remains will never be recovered.

Mahler’s 5th symphony, Adagietto

Mahler’s intensely personal writing is what I keep to returning to. The adagietto from the 5th symphony – a breathtaking creation in and of itself – focuses attention back on the victims, casting them in a moment of imagined happiness. A futile attempt to bestow on them a modicum of respect after such a barbarous demise.

BBC Proms 2013: Prom 1 / Rachmaninov Paganini Variations / Sakari Oramo / Stephen Hough / BBC Symphony Orchestra

After so long away from the Royal Albert Hall, I still find this sight exhilerating.
After so long away from the Royal Albert Hall, I still find this sight exhilerating.

If you’re in a hurry then an overview of what I made of the First Night of the 2013 BBC Proms might be what you’re looking for. Those with a little more time might be interested in the nerdy excursion I embarked upon the day after the First Night featuring a comparison of the final sequence of Rachamninov’s Variations on a theme by Paganini.

Julian Anderson excelled himself (so too the massed choirs on stage) with an evocative and sometimes etheral vocal soundscape better suited to the concert atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall than the comparative flatness of TV.

Sakari Oromo took time to get into his stride with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, conjuring up a delicious moonlight with just a hint of brooding menace with a wash of sound which filled every crevice of the auditorium. Ultimately however, Oramo was flawed before he even began. *

Pianist Stephen Hough’s Rachmaninov variations were likeable (though not loveable). The Lutoslawski variations which followed were the successful of the two Paganini theme showcases, and even though it was interesting to hear the extended version scored for orchestra, for sheer intensity and gratuitous entertainment value, it is the version for two pianos which remains head and shoulders above every iteration. I’m not sure I want to hear the Paganini theme again any time soon.

Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony seemed a little vanilla for my tastes. It almost seemed as though the climax was delivered in the opening bars leaving the rest pretty, seductive but ultimately shallow. I do hope that’s the last time I feel that way about VW, although I fear it won’t be.

The nerdy stuff
I approach Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations with a certain amount of caution ever since 2007 when a painfully disappointing performance at the BBC Proms of one of my most favourite works saw me turn to photo-sharing site Flickr with a thinly veiled threat of contacting the then BBC DG Mark Thompson seeking a re-match. Beer, too many carbs and progressively less regular exercise sees me a good deal fuller in the face now.

At the latest Proms outing for Rachmaninov’s most popular of works, I ended up sitting in the stalls in what I feared would be the worst location for assessing a musical performance. The acoustic mix isn’t just unforgiving: it’s as far from a tightly-controlled commerical recording as you can get. Individual lines ricochet around the auditorium, making an appreciation of ensemble passages nigh-on impossible.

At least that’s what I had thought until part-way through last night’s first half. The secret, I now realise, to sitting in the stalls, is to make your ears compensate and to listen out for the musical signposts. And when you realise that, that’s when you also realise you need to be pretty familiar with the work in the first place to judge the performance.

And whilst I’m on that point, judging isn’t a negative thing. Away you naysayers who reckon you’re being pithy with you ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Judging doesn’t mean you’re saying something’s ‘shit’. Far from it. Judging – perhaps ‘assessing’ is a nicer word – is part and parcel of the ongoing joy to be experienced listening to classical music.

First, you listen to the melodies. Next, you revel in those melodies. After that, you reminisce before you start searching out something fresh and exciting to fill the void. A few years after that you return to the old classics, listening to the variety of interpretations and working out what’s best .. for you. That is the joy of the genre: not only do the works themselves keep on giving (the good ones), but the interpretations are worth increasing amounts of interpretation.

Back to my problem with the 2007 Paganini. I had thought, as I sat in my seat in the Royal Albert Hall last night, that maybe I was just being an arse about the Paganini variations. That I was tapping into my tendency to look with scorn on anything I’m not a part of myself and look for the bad in things. Last night confirmed that actually that’s not true (or fair) and that my assessment is based on instinct which for the most part does bear out subsequent analysis.

Hough’s Rachmaninov Paganini didn’t fizz. It didn’t sparkle. It didn’t thrill. I didn’t end the performance and want to leap to my feet and applaud like a mad crazy Queen desperate to show everyone else around how much I connected with the performer on stage. And that saddened me .. a bit. For me and my demands for the work, Hough erred on the side of caution with some of the faster speeds making for a far more tentative performance than I think the work can withstand.

And I think it’s the speeds within the work which are central to its success. Rachmaninov’s work is a bravura piece on an almost seductive level. It demands sometimes breakneck speeds and unfailing clarity in the solo passages. The orchestra needs to be not just punctual but almost surgical in its delivery, getting ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the way in the blink of an eye. The notable ones do just that.

I took some time to go through my own archive BBC Proms recordings to see if I could nail what it was I demanded from a successful performance. For the sake of saving this post from turning into one long diatribe, I’ve picked out the last variation in the work and made some notes here based on a score of the work I found on IMSLP (the clips start from page 129). The numbers below refer to the variation numbers. Rehearsal numbers are in square brackets.


BBC Philharmonic with conductor Vassily Sinaisky and pianist Nelson Goerner

Variation 24 (1’25”) Way too slow – lacks energy – far too tentative. I already feel as though we’re heading to the end. I want to be led to a massive climax. Although accurate, it’s steadiness lacks depth of character. It’s reflected in the audience reaction at the end.


BBC Symphony Orchestra with conductor Semyon Bychkov and pianist Denis Matsuev

Piano and ensemble at the beginning of the clip is rocky, some inaccuracies in the opening piano line. Cleaner, more energetic. Tighter. Incredibly fast and raises the heart rate pointing inexorably towards the big finish. We are bought in and remain on tenterhooks when the volume drops. Variation 24 (1.12″) is gripping. The chords are all over the place at 1’57” (two bars before [78] and 2.08″. Brilliant throw away at the end.


Russian National Orchestra with conductor Andrey Boreyko and pianist Nikolai Lugansky

Character, fast. Less frenetic than 2009 but still gripping, clear and accurate. Real personality in the cadenza before Variation 24. Slightly more gentle approach to Variation 24 compared to 2009 but safe, accurate and still energetic. The two bars before 78 are tight and spot on. The lack of dampening in the piano part makes for a crystal clear solo line meaning the brass lines can sing out when necessary in the closing bars.


BBC National Orchestra of Wales with conductor Jac van Steen and pianist Marc-Andre-Hamelin

Piano line has a number of inaccuracies in it. Variation 23 is slower and suffers because of it. Orchestral accompaniment is flabby, heard most noticeably at 52″. Lots of dampening in the piano part making for indistinct lines. Variation 24 is slower and cuts the pace making the big bravura finish more difficult to achieve without a sudden gear change. The closing cascade of chords


BBC Symphony Orchestra with conductor Sakari Oramo and pianist Stephen Hough

A dampened in the piano solo line but distinctive. Slow tentative Variation 24 kills the pace almost as though we’re returning to the beginning of the piece. Sometimes it feels like the orchestra drowns out the soloist especially in the final few bars. The throwaway ending lingers a little.


Of course, this may appear unduly harsh. It isn’t personal not a mean-spirited criticism of professional endeavour, more an illustration of the pleasure to be experienced listening critically and exploring the manuscript too. It also hints at one of the realities (and joys) of live performance: that a great many factors can influence what we end up hearing and by extension what we experience. And for me, it helps me understanding why my 2007 experience of the work was so disappointing and why I (probably unrealistically) demand.

My favourite ? It has to be (and will almost certainly always be) Nikolai Lugansky’s interpretation in 2010 which along with his recording of the work is something of a benchmark.


* After Aldeburgh’s majestic first night concert performance of Grimes, Britten’s seminal work can now never be successfully played anywhere other than his resting place.

Benjamin Britten on BBC Radio 3 & 4

This blog post curates some of that programming throughout the year and includes links to catch-up and download material (where available). Links to material which has fallen outside of the 7-day catch-up window is still included in case a subsequent re-broadcast makes them available again.

This list isn’t exhaustive but will grow over time. It’s drawn from BBC press releases and programme information, archived material still available, chance listens and a trample through past schedules. Surprisingly, there’s no one signal destination which curates this stuff on A topic on the BBC’s /programmes site must surely be in order.



Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / War Requiem / Wednesday 8 May 2013

Ben and Imo / Mark Ravenhill / Sunday 30 June 2013
Recorded in March 2013 for BBC Radio 3’s late night drama slot



Discovering Music: Sinfonia da Requiem
Another edition covering Sinfonia da Requiem from 2004 presented by Charles Hazlewood is also available.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Runnicles / Thursday 18 April 2013
A programme including Britten’s Sinfonia Da Requiem.

Radio 3 New Generation Artists: Tuesday 16 April 2013
Programme includes Britten Nocturnal after John Dowland & Greensleeves, The Ash Grove

Turn of the Screw / London Symphony Orchestra / Tuesday 16 April 2013

Sacconi Quartet: Britten String Quartet No.2
Still available, live from St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield (the picture is of the Ulster Hall)

Ulster Orchestra: Suite on English Folk Tunes & A Time There was
Still available, the Ulster Orchestra performed live from the Ulster Hall, Belfast on Wednesday 13 April 2013

BBC Concert Orchestra: Sinfonia da Requiem
Still available (just),
 a repeat of a BBC CO concert from King’s College, Cambridge

Book of the Week: Alex Jennings talks about voicing Britten

Tales from the Stave: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Still available from 2012, episode 1 of series 8 on Radio 4 features conductor Steuart Bedford.

Discovering Music: Britten
An archive of Discovering Music episodes dedicated to Britten’s music is also available, listed below:

Composer of the Week: Benjamin Britten

Donald Macleod explores Benjamin Britten’s music in the light of two enduring influences – his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears and his beloved native county of Suffolk. One hour long episode remains available.

It’s My Story: Music and Silence
Britten’s godson composer and presenter Michael Berkeley talks to musicians who like him have suffered from partial hearing loss. (December 2012)

Lunchtime Concert: Lawrence Power, Simon Crawford-Phillips
Performance of Britten’s Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland from 2012.

Film: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Lots of friends have commented positively on Moonrise Kingdom since it’s release last year. Much of that enthusiasm has reminded me of those I know who still harbour fond memories of Aldeburgh echoed in the music of Benjamin Britten used heavily in the soundtrack in the film written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola.

What undoubtedly benefited the film was that it’s publicity has been seemingly low-key and reverential both to the film and the music. Old-fashioned word of mouth has distributed the buzz instead – at least it has where I’ve been concerned.

It’s a Swallows and Amazons type tale of derring-do featuring a girl and a boy – equally ‘individual’ – in a charming story told through a series of series tableaux enhanced with judicious use of nostalgia for 1960s America. Quite apart from the absorbing performances from the two leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward – beautifully cast such that we are fascinated and ultimately empathise by the oddness of the two children – the real surprise for me was Bruce Willis’ performance: the man can actually act, it seems.

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Glyndebourne 2011: The Turn of the Screw / Britten

Opera fans and the curious had a weekend treat courtesy of the Guardian and Glyndebourne on Sunday 21 August 2011. A live stream (almost) of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw.


The performance kicked off at 6.10pm and – if like me – you plumb your laptop or PC into a half decent amp the resulting combination is really quite spectacular. The image quality was high, so too the audio. I ended up using the performance as a distraction from the considerable meeting preparation I’m undergoing at the moment.


Technically speaking, being able to watch a live stream via your PC is less a feat of technological application more one of availability. I suspect that the live stream I watched was exactly the same live stream pumped into cinemas. And that spectacle – attending a live performance of anything in a cinema – has been going on for some time.

The key to this was making sufficient bandwidth available for multiple concurrent connections to the live stream. I shudder to think what the cost was. Whatever it was, I would in future be happy to fork out £20 to watch it from home. I’d pay the same to watch live theatre.


First, there was something utterly delicious – perhaps, even retro – about what I was watching on screen. This wasn’t a TV programme, it was an opera. Consequently, we didn’t get the usual presenter-led event on screen. We just had a short intro featuring a variety of talking heads, beautiful shots of Glyndebourne playing to my deep-seated bourgeoisie nature, a slow pan of the auditorium and then on to the action on stage. Simple. Well-balanced. Focussed on the right thing.

Second, I did have a sense that a great many other people were doing the same thing as me. I was following them on twitter. This was a unifying experience.

Third, not only were the performances utterly engaging, but the set looked fantastic on screen. Of particular note was the train carriage scene (Act 1/Scene 2). Beautifully executed. In fact, watching it back it was clear that every scene looked good on camera. And, unexpectedly, the performers were at times almost looking into the camera. The effect on us at home and in the cinema was that we didn’t feel we were witnessing a performance, we felt like idwe were part of it.


Fourth – and perhaps most powerfully – was the interval. A shot of the lawn at Glyndebourne and a countdown clock. I’m free to trot off and get myself a drink. Or go to the lavatory. Or wax on to my partner about how utterly brilliant this thing is and wouldn’t it be great if you could see live theatre this way? More than anything else, the simplicity of the interval treatment was in itself the best way of reflecting exactly what the opera going experience really is.

The people working on these kind of live streams – both technically and editorially – are to my mind the generation of people who will ‘break’ TV’s fiercely guarded notions of visual language and TV etiquette. Compare the two experiences side by side and suddenly TV as a medium looks outdated. Too wrapped up in itself to be brave enough to let the core editorial proposition of the broadcast – in this case the opera – speak for itself. And that is perhaps. The most exciting thing of all.