BBC Proms 2017 / 4: Birtwistle Deep Time / Elgar Symphony No. 2

I didn’t listen to Prom 4 in its entirety last night. I was tired. Ratty.

At one point I’d even disappeared into a bit of a black hole, running over things in my head over and over again. The process was useful – there was a lot to scribble down in my notebook – and at the same time draining.

That was why I found it difficult to focus my attention on the Prom and specifically on Birtwistle’s Deep Time.

I commented on this with my former music teacher from school. I’m friends with him on Facebook. He was listening on the radio.

“Found it ponderous,” I say to him. “Didn’t want to say to begin with. Birtwistle is so heralded that to disagree seems like blasphemy. But it did seem ponderous.”

Only later did I discover that Birtwistle’s godson – also a Facebook friend of my former music teacher – was also participating in the thread, and had presumably read the exchange.

Oops. Bad Jon.

I resolved to be a little more ‘gentle’ today. An odd thing to decide upon given that I am, as my husband puts it, ‘on holiday’. A few emails, made supper for when The Chap comes home, plus some bread. After which, I settled down on the sofa, with Faero, to listen to the entire work again.

Birtwistle’s Deep Time was, on a second listen, hugely engaging. You can’t help but lock-in to his way of thinking when his pre-performance interview contains such a concise and evocative description of the work he’s crafted. Be sure to listen.

In fact, in some ways, I wonder whether it might be better to just be done with the Radio 3 presenter when there’s a new work being performed and have the composer (if they’re alive) to be in the commentary box.

The Birtwistle was absorbing. Evocative. The work had a depth to it that made it feel like we were visiting somewhere. As though we had free reign in a large rambling house high on a hill. Free to discover its secrets without fear of coming to any harm.

There were terrifying moments. The crazed clarinet (and later saxophone) solo was a particular example. Out of control, lary perhaps. Far from being a hostile world, it was somewhere I wanted to escape to.

What a difference 18 hours makes.

The Elgar was a revelation. Symphony No.2 is a man saying farewell, rejecting the sentimentality and jingoism that still makes his name, and replacing it with something far more three-dimensional.

A blistering, triumphant celebration, followed by an expansive second movement that still manages to be intensely intimate. A restless and sometimes tortured and exhilarating third movement after that. The fourth revealed an unexpected delight: a temporary resolution of the tension I hadn’t realised had been presented in the work before, similar to my first experience of Wagner out in Budapest. Finished the work feeling wrung-out. I didn’t know Elgar could do that.

Little wonder then, after an encore of Elgar’s Nimrod, and that speech, things got a little bit sobby (by this time, around 4.30pm this afternoon).

Little wonder too that Barenboim’s words resonated the way they did. Barenboim knows how to programme. He knows what the audience wants, feels, and doesn’t want and feel. He knows it instinctively and then, through a speech, ramps things up even further.

I’d normally be self-deprecating and say I had been drinking too much wine. But this was 4.30pm. Barenboim’s speech lanced a boil. Like Jessica Duchen says, Barenboim was right. That’s why it worked. That’s why it was necessary. That’s why his words were appreciated.

But more than that, it makes me ponder some unexpected thoughts. Why aren’t we hearing more of what a conductor thinks and feels, spoken from the podium? Sure, orchestras have a voice – that’s their bread and butter. That’s what we pay them for.

But when a conductor speaks, that which seems distant to some suddenly appears human. It’s good to hear an orchestra – or an artist – speak in that way. Maybe speaking up a bit (in a different language) is all the ‘classical music’ world needs to do to contribute to the narrative.

BBC Proms 2017 / 2: Sibelius Violin Concerto / Elgar Symphony No. 1

I worried last night, but didn’t know why.

Now I do. Now I’ve heard Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elgar 1 from Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, things seem like they’re back on track.

Tonight was epic, an effortless and passionate evocation of feelings I didn’t realise I needed to confront.

The Sibelius was rich and rewarding. Elgar helped heal wounds. I feel enriched and invigorated.

Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore seemed like a deliciously ambiguous ending. The subsequent Pomp and Circumstance march felt like a clumsy and unnecessary addition.

That said, an easy 5/5 (via radio)

BBC Proms 2016 / 70: Staatskapelle play Bruckner 6

I listened to Bruckner 6 on my birthday jaunt around London. This year’s excursion took me to the Fox Talbot exhibition at the Science Museum and after that, a cheeky Margherita on the Southbank.

There’s no time to go into detail (it is my birthday all), but suffice to say Bruckner’s sixth symphony is far more engaging than his third. There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere

There’s a smattering of Mahler in there somewhere for a start. The first movement gets off to an arresting start; the second (slow) movement is a remarkable achievement too.

All in all, it’s a work which demands repeat listens. It’s rich, complex and revealing. The idea that this came before Mahler’s first symphony makes the whole thing beguiling.

There was also some kind of incident with something heavy and valuable on stage which made things even more compelling. I’m not entirely clear what occurred, but it did definitely sound like something very expensive had broken .. when it hit the stage.

BBC Proms 2016 / 69: Staatskapelle plays Bruckner 4

Tradition has it to dismiss Bruckner’s symphonies as nothing more than ‘washing machine music’.

When a former colleague once threw that disparaging remark into conversation about the composer, I hit back with the retort, “Yeah, but you love Wagner. And he rarely reached a climax.”

I didn’t win the argument. Now I ‘get’ Wagner, I do rather regret saying it. Such a puerile response.

More to the point, I’m not entirely sure why I felt the need to defend Bruckner. Listening back to the Staatskapelle’s Prom from last night, I agree with my former colleague’s original assertion. I might even feel the need to tweak it.

Bruckner isn’t washing machine music in the way we’d expect a washing machine to function. Bruckner’s music is essentially nothing more than a rinse cycle.

This has nothing to do with Daniel Barenboim’s direction of the Stadtskapelle. We need to go a little deeper for the reason I struggle with Bruckner.

The first time I heard Bruckner’s 4th symphony was at a concert hall ten or so years back. I’d been asked to shoot some video of an orchestra, conduct some interviews and edit together a video package which could be embedded on their website.

The interior of the hall made for a scintillating view (and I’d just purchased a delicious wide angle lens too) and the shimmering opening to the symphony being rehearsed in the hall at the time of the shoot fitted the visuals perfectly.

I’d discovered the joys of tilts and pans on a fixed tripod too. Simple shots emphasising the drama of the surroundings cut to the seemingly understated beauty of Bruckner’s music seemed like a no-brainer.

The person commissioning the piece didn’t agree (to this day I remain unclear what he really knows about video production anyway), refused to pay costs, a fee and, to add insult to injury, insisted I handed over all the material I had shot. “We’d like to edit the material together instead.” Instinct kicked in, the words ‘trust’, and ‘lack of’ were bandied around quite a lot and there the situation was left.

From that day to this Bruckner’s 4th has been a closed door to the rest of his works. I approach it and the rest of his symphonies with prejudice. His climaxes are over-prepared and ultimately underwhelming. His scoring is overworked – the musical illustration of someone so concerned about the detail that the bigger picture seems to be lost. Bruckner 4 at least is something one just gets through.

The Staatskapelle are playing three Bruckner symphonies this week. What I’m wondering is whether I’ll have changed my mind about Bruckner by the time they leave the country.