July 2011

No notes, no research – just some thoughts and observations.

Prom 9: Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček

What to say about this concert? None of the works are new or unrecorded, so description unnecessary; I don’t know any of the works well enough to make comparisons with other interpretations of them. So – the Sibelius Scènes historiques were pleasant, and while they did, as promised in the concert blurb “[reveal] the composer’s lighter side”, to be honest, I’m more interested in his darker (heavier?) side, and found the 7th Symphony more meaningful and musically engaging. In both, I found myself listening particularly to all the different timbres brought out by the scoring, as the focus shifted around the different sections of the orchestra. All of the sounds coming from the Hallé were simply so nice that I probably would have been quite happy listening to them play scale exercises. What I particularly appreciated about the flute section was the richness of sound in their low registers, and they way it projected such a distance without ever sounding the slightest bit forced. The whole orchestra, in fact, had a particularly close-up, intimate feel to it, which is some achievement when playing to a crowd of many thousands in a huge space.

Enjoyed Bartók’s 3rd piano concerto, performed with great lyricism and harmonic clarity by András Schiff; there seemed particularly close rapport between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the fast alternating sections in the last movement. Janáček’s Sinfonietta is simply a super piece, and was played brilliantly, with all the fizzing energy required, but pinpoint-accurate under Mark Elder’s light fingertip control of the invisible mixing desk. It’s the only one of the pieces that I’ve actually played (piccolo part), and I had an idiot grin on my face for quite a lot of it, especially the 3rd movement. Incidentally: Oo, trombones! Trombones are great!

On a side note, I’m used to having to put up with noise made by other members of the public coughing, eating, fiddling with their false teeth and talking (including, in this case, some imbecilic American man behind me asking what Schiff was playing for his encore WHILE he was playing it), but this is the first time I’ve been distracted by the noise of a ticking watch. Yes, the elderly woman sitting next to me was wearing a watch with an absurdly loud tick, that was clearly audible in the quieter sections of the music. Especially when she raised her hand to ear level, while looking through her binoculars. I noticed it during the first piece and in the first break, politely asked her if she would mind putting it in her handbag. She seemed astonished that I could hear it, and put it to her ear to see if she could (no), and then if her companion could (no), but was still happy to comply. This was fortunate, as having the equivalent of a metronome set permanently to 60 BPM going throughout would not have been conducive to an enjoyable performance.

Prom 33: Sibelius, Grieg, Nielsen

Sibelius and Nielsen are two composers who seem to divide orchestral musicians, or at least, the ones I know. I love them both, Sibelius for his timbres and tone colours, and Nielsen because he writes for woodwind with more love and understanding than almost anyone. The two symphonies tonight (Sibelius 6, Nielsen 4) were not ones I know best, but both showed well the talents of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The Sibelius was particularly effective in its fine graduations of volume and texture. The Nielsen, on the other hand, required very sudden changes; the way the orchestra handled these gave me a mental image of being in a room with several doors opening and shutting in turn and then in combination, the other side of each having a completely different scene going on. Stand-out personnel were the battling timpanists (obviously), and the principal bassoon, who had an unusually soft-edged, slightly diffuse sound with languid vibrato, which was intriguing and enjoyable.

The other piece on the programme – the Grieg Am piano concerto, played by Alice Sara Ott – was one I know very well. At least, I’ve played in it enough times that I actually felt a kinaesthetic memory twitching in my fingertips in response to the 1st flute part – not all the way through, obviously, but at a few key moments, such as the lovely solo in the 3rd movement, which is one of my favourites. Cheese? Why yes it is, but it goes sailing above everything, the finest melted cheese topping (yeah, it’s not the best metaphor) with a last leap up to the top A and goosebumps all round. I found some of the tempi a little on the slow side (and got the impression that Ott did too, and was trying to push them on a bit, though couldn’t say for certain from such a distance) and the phrases joined into very long lines which could have done with a bit more definition, but that’s personal taste. I don’t seem to be very good at telling one pianist from another, because although I haven’t a word to say against Ott’s performance of the concerto, it sounded much the same (i.e. just as good) to my ears than every other time I’ve heard it. That is, apart from that time I did it in a church that hadn’t bothered to get their piano tuned properly, and one of the lower As was massively flat; A is kind of an important note in a concerto IN A MINOR, and the poor pianist kept trying to avoid it by transposing bits of the left hand either up or down the octave. Fortunately Ott did not have to do that. Neither did she make the mistake, as happened in the last performance of it that I played in, of wearing a brand new salmon-pink gown which turned out to be one of those fabrics that goes much darker when it gets wet, which in a sweltering hall resulted in massive sweat patches under each arm, mid-bosom, and, when she stood up to bow, arse too. Not that I suppose she would have cared, as long as all the music went well, and it did.

Audience noise rep0rt: One mobile phone, but an ‘old-fashioned telephone’ jingly sound which happened to be of the correct pitch to blend with the harmony of the music at that point. So, less annoying than a triangle…

Prom 66: Thierry Escaich (organ) plays Bach, Escaich, Reger, Franck, & Liszt

I like going to organ recitals once in a while. Don’t mind who’s playing what, just like having my bones rattled by the massive pipes. Preferably while lying flat on my back in the middle of the RAH Arena.

This year, for various reasons, I decided not to do the press thing at the Proms. I’ve enjoyed writing formal reviews and probably will again, but for now am taking a break. So, no notes taken or facts researched – just some thoughts and observations as they occur.

Prom 4: Havergal Brian Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’

Before the concert, a friend of a friend opined that people in the audience were in two camps: those that had been waiting decades to hear this piece, and those that had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. I disagree. The BBC has done an excellent publicity job, and tickets sold out the day they went on sale, I imagine with many punters in a similar frame of mine to me, i.e. ‘Havergal Brian? Name rings a bell; don’t know a note of his music though. What’s that – it’s the heaviest-scored, longest, loudest symphony ever written ever ever? Sounds fun – count me in.’

Some of my acquaintance say I’m fussy about music, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. I hear a violin and go ‘Oo, violin! Violins are great!’, I hear a french horn and go ‘Oo, horn! Horns are great!’, and so on. (Of course, there are exceptions: I hear a triangle or glockenspiel and think ‘Stupid bloody noise tingtingting ow making my ears ring shut up!’) So, Mr Brian seemingly liked the sound of all the instruments in the orchestra, and included as many of them as possible, in all the different sizes. Plus a Victorian thunder machine, which appeared to be a rotating washing machine drum filled with rocks. I was misinformed that the scoring included a bass flute and was disappointed to find that it didn’t (although bass oboe and contrabass clarinet were included, which seems very unfair); however, unreliable sources on the internet inform me that bass flutes were first constructed in the 1920s, so he might not have been aware of their existence. You might think that it makes little difference to anything when among an orchestra of 200-odd, but it might well have done, as several of the quieter moments of the work were scored in a way that brought out the alto flute lines quite clearly. The 8-strong flute section were very effectively used, sometimes in more traditional solo or duet lines (played expressively and with superb ensemble), sometimes Mahler-style section playing, and at one point in an odd reversal of classical scoring, with a solo violin line accompanied by a choir of flutes.

As regular readers may know, apart from my own instrument, I’m also particularly fond of bass clarinets, all the double reeds, and tubas (as long as they’re not doing Comedy Tuba Cliche, i.e. playing stuff that sounds like it should be soundtracking a jolly slapstick skit involving rotund people falling over). The bass clarinets had some very nice solo action that could easily have been from a Wagner scene, and the oboe section all sounded gorgeous, with a particularly lovely section for cor anglais duet. Fortunately, in addition to adding much welly to the loud bits, the 2 tubas and 2 euphoniums (?) were featured not as comedy, but in a lovely slowly-building Wagnerian (again) structure of Rhein-like open 5ths. I mentioned above that I hate glockenspiels; I have no such issue with xylophones, although for some reason I do tend to find their sound intrinsically funny. Not the case here, as this concert featured the most jaw-droppingly amazing xylophone playing I have ever heard, in a blurry-armed part which I would think requires insane levels of rhythmic precision and coordination. The timp part was pretty full-on too, but at least there were 6 of them banging away (6 timpanists, that is, each with 4 timpani – spread variously around the stage area for some pleasing antiphonal effects).

I feel a little bad about not having anything specific to pick out from the hundreds of voices in the multiple choirs participating (particularly as I had friends singing). They made a great warm, rounded sound and showed very impressive accuracy of timing considering the huge numbers involved, and the complicated Spem in Alium (but more chromatic) part-writing in some sections. Some of the choral sections were very traditional and quite hymn-like, whereas others were reminiscent of Ligeti. Some of the unaccompanied sections were very long, and I heard a rumour that the pitch (unsurprisingly) drooped a couple of times, although it wasn’t enough for listeners without absolute-pitch to notice. I also heard a rumour that the soprano, Susan Gritton (at that point high up in the rafters) noticed the tuning issue and cleverly put it back on track during her solo sections. If that’s true, brilliantly handled!

This being the first performance of the Gothic Symphony since the 60s 80s, much of the comment on it has been as if it were a premiere. Those I’ve heard and read so far seem to generally agree on the fact that (a) it was an extremely impressive performance, with a great deal of credit going to conductor Brabbins for holding together and shaping such huge forces, and (b) the work itself is erratic and uneven in style and compositional structure, and that this was problematic for listeners. I can see why this might be the case for some, but wasn’t for me.

Firstly, the overall structure of the symphony, which I’m told was intended as an auditory depiction of a gothic cathedral, huge, imposing, featuring odd bits of decorative carving and grotesquely humorous gargoyles, part celestial and part militaristic. Well, yes. There were bits with different moods which might have been written by composers 100 years apart in different countries jammed against eachother without any attempt at smooth transition. But does one necessarily always want smooth transitions? Sudden swerves in an unexpected direction are exciting. These differently-textured slabs of music were not arranged neatly in an obvious pattern, but more like crazy paving, with large and small units mixed, some perhaps ‘too’ large or ‘too’ small. My companion commented that it was a wonderful moment when the organ first kicked in, full throttle (which it was), and a shame it was gone again so soon – but that as a leave-em-wanting-more tactic, it worked. In my opinion, there are some people who dislike surprises and are more comfortable knowing what’s going to happen next (in the case of orchestral music, either because they know the work or can make a fair estimate based on knowledge of the composer and/or genre) and there are some who actively like surprises and the sensation of having no idea what’s coming (and when you play or listen to a lot of orchestral music, that sensation becomes harder to come by). When listening to something that clearly isn’t following ‘the rules’, the brain can’t whirr away making its predictions in the background to try and fill up the empty space of the unheard future, and I find that quite liberating.

Another compositional aspect is the level of complexity of texture and/or polyphony of music. Or in other words, there’s a Lot Going On At Once. While I enjoy a beautiful melody, emotive harmonic change, or neatly-fitting counterpoint as much as anyone, I realised that sometimes I crave complexity. Because I’m naturally highly analytical, a part of my brain goes around pattern-spotting and problem-solving quite of its own accord, and while this – contrary to the belief of some – does not make music any less enjoyable, sometimes it can be good to give it a break. One route to this is (as above) through unpredictable macro-structures, but another, more instantaneous, way is to overload with music which has so many instruments or parts doing so many different things (yet each of them making sense), that it’s impossible to process them all at once. Of course, different listeners are overloaded by different levels of complexity: for one person, four instruments playing triadic harmonies in similar rhythms is quite enough for comfort; another person may be totally confused by bitonality or hemiola-heavy rhythms; others can hold 8-part double-fugue structures in their heads with ease. And while I find this loss of comprehensive grip an uplifting mental sensation which is almost trance-like, some people hate it.

Lastly, there’s the volume aspect. Anyone can amplify their instrument(s) through a big stack of speakers and make a deafening noise – the decibels aren’t the issue – but a hugely loud noise which is all from acoustic instruments, which fills the majority of the audible frequency spectrum, and which has the multi-layered complexity of timbres that comes from a symphony orchestra, is something very special. Douglas Adams described the effect of his fictional cocktail the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster as “like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick”. The climactic bits of the Gothic Symphony, even from the very back row, felt like drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, while on a rollercoaster, in a hurricane.

I loved it.