Proms 2009: Prom 53 – Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Roger Norrington

Let me talk you through my morning routine. It starts later than most senior people in the media industry in that I normally wake up to my alarm at 7.30am, drift back to sleep and then drag my carcass out from underneath the duvet at the same time as checking my email on my phone. Twitter is checked around about the time I plant my backside on the toilet.

The past few days has seen a dramatic mood change drastically by the time I’ve left the bathroom. This is in part my fault. I have my phone set up to alert every time some tweets about the Proms. And believe me, there’s nothing worse than being told how wonderful last night’s performances were when I’d made a conscious decision to avoid the Proms. At least, until I was in a better frame of mind.

I explained to a friend how my connection with the Proms at the present time was not unlike the emotions I experienced when I realised that a relationship with a girlfriend really was well and truly over – so much so I didn’t want to spend any more time than I absolutely had to in her company. Hence why I chose the graduation ball I invited her to attend as my significant other to tell her she was no longer required to fulfill the role. It’s not a nice feeling. I was justifiably remonstrated for being an insensitive fool.

Still, I’m not a total arse. I’ve managed to preserve some level-headedness. The BBC provides the iPlayer. That’s what these things are here for. Give authentic performance chappy Roger Norrington and his merry band of players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment a go. Despite a first half of Purcell and Handel (with a smattering of Haydn), there’s still a chance they’ll deliver that road to Damascus experience I craved earlier in the season.

The OAE didn’t disappoint nor the quality of the catchup recording on iPlayer. Volume up loud I was forced to acknowledge that actually, just maybe I may have found a snippet of Handel’s music I rather enjoyed. It might even have been possible I thought it was quite, quite beautiful (in no small part thanks to Joyce DiDonato’s exquisite voice). I may even be prepared to sit through an entire recording of the opera Xerxes from which the excerpt Ombra Mui Fu came from. Possibly. Check back here at a later date.

The real revelation however was Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony. Played on modern instruments on most of the recordings I’ve got, the sound is mushy, the strings distant and the wind indistinct. Stick it on in the background. Think nothing of it. Not as good as the Italian but pleasant enough. That’s all there is to it, I reckoned.

Norrington and his band however produced something entirely different. He gave them time and in return they gave him and the audience an effortless illlustration of the intricacies of Mendelssohn’s at times fiendish orchestration. At least it sounded effortless. There could have been blood, sweat and tears on stage for all I know. I was listening via iPlayer after all.

Really interesting was the slide Norrington got string players to play somewhere approaching the end of the first movement and the hard sticks on taut timpani punching through the ensemble towards the end of the last movement. The woodwind were stunning, the brass too breathtaking. Especially touching was the extended time given over to the woodwind lines towards the end – not something I’d heard before in performance. Not stopping for much of a break in between movements undoubtedly made for a far more complete experience of Mendelssohn’s work too. And yes, I realise I’m gushing.

Norrington did a wonderful thing at Prom 53. This doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is *back on* of course. It was the orchestra rather than the season which provided the revelation. But I did enjoy it. And as anyone who finds themselves having to resuscitate a relationship will tell you, it’s all about taking things slowly. I am not about to jump back into bed with the Proms, but I might just see it through to the end of the ball.

Prom 76: Loved It

Prom 76: Loved It, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

A day of roll calls, queuing, walking, standing and a bit more queuing and I’m pleased to announce that I have, finally, attended my first-ever Last Night of the Proms.

I did tut and moan about the lady in the second row who coughed seemingly uncontrollably during the Beethoven piano-thing, initially refused to bob up and down because I thought I’d look like a twat and did get ridiculously excited when the Ulster Orchestra appeared on the screens inside the Royal Albert Hall. Believe me, it was one very special evening.

Roger Norrington’s speech was brief but the poem he read was unexpectedly touching.

The journey home provided a bit of a wake-up call, however. Seeing some people on the tube train home with Proms in the Park tickets hanging around their necks, I ventured to ask how it was in Hyde Park. “Fantastic!” replied one of the girls I was speaking to.

“Did you see the Hall from where you were?”

“Yeah,” she replied, “there was a live feed on the screen in the park. But we weren’t really interested in the toffs in the hall.”

Prom 14: An ironic performance

London Paper

Whilst rolling news channels and the editors of those god-forsaken free newspapers jumped for joy at the prospect of the impending environmental crisis to report on, the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston under the direction of groovy-authentic-performance-specialist Roger Norrington got underway with their performance of Haydn’s Oratorio, The Seasons.

At exactly the same time as the mammoth work got started in the Royal Albert Hall, I was tentatively starting my journey home on my bike, hands locked into position, helmet securely fastened underneath my chin and my face screwed up to withstand the driving rain which appeared to have started the moment I emerged from Tower Hill tube station.

Even the instrumentalists playing in the Royal Albert Hall must have rolled their eyes at the irony of being in London playing as something as climactic as The Seasons at a time when the Midlands are seeing the worst floods they’ve seen in years and everyone in the UK suddenly knows the telephone number for the Environment Agency.

There’s not much I can tell you about The Seasons other than it is absolutely fantastic music for riding home in a rainstorm to. There’s something raw about the sound of authentic performances which fits well with the relentless rain. I’m not sure whether it was the weather or the music which spurred me on more.

There was something quite magical too about cycling away from the centre of London with sounds emanating from the Royal Albert Hall via my radio earphones. There are some things we all of us take for granted and the beautiful simplicity of radio is one of them.

I have to confess though, I did lose interest in the music the moment I stepped inside the front door. I am human, after all. Not all of us can commit ourselves entirely to this summer music marathon. Haydn’s choral work might help maintain a fitness regime but sitting still long enough to listen to the remaining 60 minutes of the concert was not something high on my agenda.

Sorry Mr Norrington. As much as I appreciate the work you do promoting the authentic performance cause, when it comes to the bare necessities you and your love of classical composers do, sadly, have to come a poor second (or maybe third, depending on whether the cats have been fed or not).

* Sadly, I wasn’t able to get a brilliant shot of the rain which we’d all been bracing ourselves for, but I did get this picture which amply illustrates what my rainy ride home was like.