BBC Proms 2016 / 17: Brahms Symphony No. 1

It’s not been an easy day. In fact, it’s been quite tough.

The seed of today’s problem was sown yesterday. It took root, sprouted, and blossomed this morning. Come lunchtime, post-harvest, I felt like I’d spent the entire morning chewing on a nettle.

The problem was resolved swiftly, but the taste lingered in my mouth as I sat in the BBC’s One Show studio, waiting to interview these two.

That’s why Brahms 1 conducted by Roger Norrington at the BBC Proms tonight seemed like the perfect antidote.

Brahms succeeds where plenty of other composers before and after have spectacularly failed. His musical depiction of angst and torment (or twenty-something self-absorption) is as relevant to me now as it was the first time I heard it as a teenager. Each successive movement ushers the listener towards redemption, vindication or, at the very least, hope.

The triumphant fourth movement might at first, compared to what has gone before, seem trite to some. It never has to me. There’s always been a sense of forgiveness in it: a sort-of long-forgotten General Studies lesson in how to be kind to yourself when things have gone a bit shit.

In the space of half-an-hour Brahms seems to capture everything and offer an alternative at the end of it. The composer is widely regarded as the greatest symphonist, and with very good reason.

Sir Roger Norrington achieved a great thing at the BBC Proms tonight at the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra’s final gig.

Norrington’s period instrument recording of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 remains a landmark creation. But tonight’s performance contained some trademark Norrington flourishes including string player slides, and prominent timpani and bass. An unexpected embellishment was the muted horn buzzing in the background.

I’m not entirely convinced whether this souped-up performance added anything. If I was to be really pedantic (it does come naturally so, you know, please forgive) I prefer the period interpretation. I wanted more angst. I wanted more grinding, all-consuming bass-lines. I wanted things to feel like heavy weather from time to time. At times the sparse textures meant there wasn’t as much light and shade as I felt I needed. Brahms 1 should be heavy weather, so the resolution at the end of it feels hard-earned.

But, there was sufficient trademark Norrington in this electrifying performance. It dramatised the day’s proceedings, and dealt with them too.

This will, I’m in no doubt, be one of the highpoints of this year’s BBC Proms.

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.