PROM 15: Wagner (Die Walküre)

If there is going to be a particularly hot spell in the London summertime, tradition dictates that it will coincide with the Proms season’s most popular concerts. And thus it was this year, with heatwave peaking for the Proms’ first (and entirely sold-out) full Ring Cycle, under Daniel Barenboim. I know a few hardy types who not only did the whole cycle, but with standing tickets, but I’m afraid I just went to one of the four, and got a seat for it. (I did consider doing the lot, but I’m a bit Siegfrieded-out this year, and  Götterdämmerung clashed with another event.) Now, the Albert Hall’s air conditioning has improved considerably in the time I’ve been going there, and the place was pleasantly cool at the start, but over the next few hours it proved no match for the combined heat of a few thousand Wagner fans.

I didn’t care. The performance was fantastic, rising far above any superficial bodily discomfort, and I was so glad I’d gone to hear it in person. I’ve commented before on the special nature of being in the same physical space as live acoustic music, with nothing but vibrating air between the instruments and your ears, and this was a prime example. In some other people’s reviews I’ve read a few negative comments about Barenboim’s extremes of tempo and dynamics, and apparently some kind of intra-orchestral disagreement going on at one point, but no untoward incidents were visible from Row T of the amphi (the area where I’m usually to be found – back centre), and I can report that the dynamics were so perfectly judged – the pps as soft as they could be without ever slipping into inaudibility – that they must have had somebody in the back row for the soundcheck. As for the tempi, well, with such beautifully-realised orchestral colours and textures, who wouldn’t want to luxuriate a little? I didn’t mind.

I won’t go into great detail about individuals, but can report that (IMO) Bryn Terfel still owns Wotan, Nina Stemme is a totally kickass Brunnhilde, Eric Halfvarson continues to do a good line in Nasty Bass roles, and Ekaterina Gubanova’s lovely tone and expressive, musical phrasing almost won me over to the frequently-dislikeable Fricka. Anja Kampe and Simon O’Neill were solid as the star-crossed twincest couple.

Orchestra prize of the night is for the delicious solos of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s cor anglais player (NB: Anyone know the name, so I can include it? I didn’t have a programme), with bass clarinet and oboe as runners up. Piccolos – very nice, but I wanted to hear MORE of you in the mix. Anyway, big hugs to all.

PSM 2: Britten, Tippett, Holst and Berkeley

I’m not the biggest fan of strings-only music, but if I’m going to listen to the stuff, I think I want it played by the Britten Sinfonia. Let me clarify that. Listening to consort music, where you have a bunch of basically the same instrument in different sizes, whether it’s strings, recorders, saxophones, or whatever, is like watching black and white films. Yes, it can be very beautiful, and there have certainly been some masterworks created in that medium… but colour is important to me, and after a while I find myself yearning for a splash of red, or an instrument from a different family. Does that make sense?

Nevertheless, the BS strings (under Sian Edwards) combined careful attention to detail with such vibrancy, and precision with verve, that I didn’t mind at all that they’d left the other half of the orchestra at home. First up was Britten’s Prelude and Fugue – a new piece to me, but an instant hit. (In fact, weirdly, it sounded almost exactly the kind of music I was unsuccessfully attempting to compose while at university, until the composition tutor told me not to bother.) Holst’s St Paul’s Suite – ach, they really did their best to give the thing life, but it’s just dull music. I do not like a folksy jig (well, unless I’m one of the ones playing it, and it’s being taken insanely fast – at which point they can become quite fun). The last string piece, Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli was a bit clever-clever, but did contain some lovely bits, particularly in the duets between leader and principal 2nd (I think – again, no programme, no names).

And the vocal works, where I got my wish of something non-stringed thrown into the mix. Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila really do deserve to be played more often, and what a great piece is Britten’s Phaedra! Sarah Connolly, whom regular readers will know I like quite a lot, really has become Queen of psychologically-troubled classical anti-heroines. Taking a day out in between her Glyndebourne performances as Rameau’s version of the role (Phèdre, in Hippolyte et Aricie) (read her talking about it here), in 15 brief minutes, she nailed the character in all her splendidly violent emotions. It’s not often I leave a concert and can’t wait to hear a piece all over again, but thanks to the magic of BBC iPlayer, on this occasion I can do so. And suggest you do the same, while it’s still up.

PROM 34: Vivaldi (The Four Seasons)

This. Yes.

All of the good things about Nigel Kennedy concerts, and none of the bad. Spirited iconoclastic solo and orchestral playing, a fresh and unique twist on a long-beloved piece (with lots of additional material, but – importantly – no movements left out), proof of the existence of that rare thing: Good Crossover music, no bloody electric violin in earshot, and minimal talking. Loved it.

My full review is here.

* There was a bit of talking, but it was right at the end. And some guy in the audience shouted “bollocks” loudly in the middle. Did you hear that on the radio, or did they do a quick edit? (I don’t know if he objected to the vague political sentiment being expressed, had Tourette’s, or was just worried it was going to turn into a 20-minute monologue and wanted to hear more music.)

Prom 55: Lutosławski, Shostakovich & Panufnik

Surprisingly, this was the Warsaw Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, invited as part of this year’s focus on Polish music. About time too, one might say, and particularly so with it being both Lutosławski’s centenary year (and almost Panufnik’s too, shy by a year), and this the farewell concert of outgoing Artistic Director of twelve years, Antoni Wit. It was also only right that they should debut with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed specially for this orchestra – well, an earlier generation – in the 1950s, and they brought a proprietary authority to the work, from the driving timpani thumps of the opening. Lutosławski here uses melodic material from the Polish folk music tradition, but within the context of a highly-structured compositional form, with more than a nod to Bartók and Stravinsky. This was a high-definition performance which paid great attention to all the fine details of phrasing, dynamics, colour combinations and textural contrast, without ever compromising on overall shape or momentum… [read more here]

Prom 67: Pärt, Britten, Berlioz & Saint-Saëns

Tonight’s Orchestre de Paris Prom was very much a concert of two halves, in the first of which they got to show their sensitive, introspective side, reflecting on the nature of life and lamenting too-early death, then becoming considerably more extrovert in the second for some free-spirited buccaneering, and what the programme notes describe as “vivid, prolonged and grand noise”. It was, in fact, rather like attending two short concerts back-to-back – and both equally good, in their different ways.

The first half consisted of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and a work by Britten himself, the Violin Concerto – a perfect pairing…   [read more here]

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 11: Berlioz (The Trojans)

Last month I wrote about the dress rehearsal for this in its staged form at Covent Garden. At the time, I was very taken with the visual aspect of the performance, so was glad of another chance to hear the music, now comfortably bedded-in with all concerned, without all the running around, and with the orchestra up on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Of course, there was no huge flaming horse, but given the ambient temperature of the Albert Hall in summer (a few degrees below the Mouth of Hell), this was probably for the best.

I particularly enjoyed Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra, more than I did at the dress – now devoid of floor-rolling and nose-scraping, but with voice just as full of character and feeling, if not more so. I also appreciated Ji-Min Park’s Iopas more this time. The acoustic, of course, was not ideal – at least, in certain parts of the hall, and the smallest voices (only in the smallest of roles) were sometimes drowned; having said that, I wouldn’t have had the orchestra any quieter, as they were making a splendid noise. The extra brass were up in the gallery, from where the antiphony worked particularly well (and the bonus that they could blast the unsuspecting audience members sitting directly below and frighten the life out of them). It was good to be able to pay proper attention to the ROH woodwind section, whom I greatly admire. 1st flute Margaret Campbell was on particularly lovely form – although I’m not (yet?) a great fan of Berlioz’s flute writing – but it’s always a little bit of a disappointment not to see Philip Rowson in the piccolo chair (no insult intended to the chap who was). There were some very fine pieces for clarinet, seemingly excellently performed – I’m a bit out of love with the sound of clarinets at the moment and not being easily moved by them, so it’s difficult to judge, but given that, despite this, I still noticed it on several occasions, it must have been pretty good!

Regarding the work itself, I was more drawn to the music in Acts 1 and 2 – the ones set in Troy. In the Carthage acts, there were some very wonderful moments, but the longeurs seemed longer. At Covent Garden, even with the distraction of men running around in little leather pants, the ballet scenes dragged; here, without even that, the music – however brilliantly played – bored me silly. By halfway through Act 4 I was rolling my eyes, and if I had magic editing powers, I would have cut pretty much the entire act, apart from Narbal’s bit – or, if that made the opera a bit on the short side, have Brindley Sherratt sing the ancient Carthanginian version of the telephone directory for half an hour. That would have been  much better.

Still, damn fine opera. Glad to have discovered it, and might even get the DVD (which will have FF/skip capability…)

PROM 42: Prokofiev, Neuwirth, Bartók

As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work. Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory, which received its UK premiere at this concert, is a more traditional concert work in the sense of being a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement  titled “… im Meer versank …” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect. Although there are passing allusions to ‘songs’ from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness’… [read more here]

PROM 47: Cage Centenary Celebration

Perhaps it’s something to do with the Olympics? While there are avid lifelong fans of each one of the less-frequently-televised events featured, there have also been legions of people who usually barely register an interest in sport glued to Greco-Roman wrestling, the incomprehensible varieties of bicycle race, and hours of athletes repeatedly flinging different objects across a field. Likewise, although the many ardent fans of John Cage were obviously out in force for this centenary celebration concert for the legendary iconoclast, also present were a significant number of newcomers both to the ‘genre’ (if it can be called such) and to the Proms themselves. And the majority of them stayed the distance, too – a not inconsiderable 3 1/2 hours (5 if one took the Cage-inspired ‘Music Walk’ beforehand), at least an hour of which involved seemingly-abstract soundscapes created from unpitched ‘found’ instruments such as paper, wires, an electric fan, an vast range of cacti (Branches), and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s instrument cases (the Marclay piece Baggage). Of course, the sound made by rustling paper is not very loud (unless it is a nearby audience member’s programme, in which case it is obviously infuriatingly so), so amplification was a major feature of the concert… [read more here]

PROM 63: Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel

I bloody love Ligeti. It reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t. I’ve been having some horrid #fibrospoon* stuff going on recently, with muscle fibres randomly knotting themselves up into snarling masses of tension and pain, but when those microtonal clusters of gossamer sound settled on me, the tightness eased, and the knots began to unravel themselves. I would say that I should try it more often, but even the most high-definition of recordings doesn’t work in the same way as being hit by the actual sound waves from the actual instruments. I’ve been lucky enough to hear maybe 3 live performances of Atmosphères in the last few years, and so after a couple of minutes of letting it do its soothing work, I decided to open my eyes and actually look at the musicians for a change. It did amuse me a little to see such a famously disciplined string section as the Berlin Phil with their bows all flying chaotically in different directions (of course they were – they were all playing different parts), and the double bass section getting all excited in the piccolo lead-up to the Vertical Asymptote Bit (if you don’t know the bit I mean, listen to the piece, and you will). The Albert Hall was rammed full of thousands of people being as quiet as they possibly could so as not to miss a note; this was very pleasing – I didn’t have to poke or scold anyone! It also worked extremely well to segue straight into the Lohengrin Overture; with the most careful of gear changes, the textures were matched perfectly and the first tonal chord emerged in a sudden manifestation of reverse entropy.

I didn’t know Sibelius 4 at all. I should have done, as it was on the programme for an orchestra repertoire course I was on the other year, but there were, that afternoon, as frequently happens, more flutes around than required, and I generously volunteered to take the afternoon off (in favour of a hot bath to soak a set of arms and back not used to 8 hours a day of playing). Anyway, when I turned up for dinner, the other flutes rounded on me, suggesting I’d only pretended to be reluctantly stepping down because I secretly knew that it was an awful symphony and wanted to get out of playing it. This was Very Unfair, both to me, and, it turns out, to Sibelius. It is not an awful symphony at all; it is rather lovely – although on the dark, stark side, and possibly a disappointment to anyone expecting Big Tunes like in No.5. There was one bit I hated, to be fair – anyone guess what? – yes, some incredibly obtrusive walloping glockenspiel, that had me fantasising about taking a machine gun and blowing the bastard thing to smithereens. I mean the instrument, of course, not the player, who was presumably only doing what the score and maestro required of him. Fortunately, from a Law n Order point of view, I had no access to firearms or the percussion area. Or, for that matter, to Jonathan Kelly, whom I do not know personally and so would have probably alarmed by giving a massive hug, just for playing such beautiful oboe solos. (Yes, I really like oboes. This is not news to anyone. Or is it? I was out the other night with old friends who were somehow surprised to discover that I really like curry and tennis, so who knows…)

In the second half there was something of a change of pace with Debussy and Ravel. If Sir Rattle thinks Jeux is a worthwhile piece of music, I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it and assume it’s me that’s missing something, but – meh. Whatevers. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Daphnis & Chloe, on the other hand, was absolutely brilliant. The woodwind were nice and prominent, as it should be, and from my Upper Choir seat I could hear more of the detail in their parts than I’d dared hope. Admittedly I did have a brief thought of how I’d like to be at a sectional rehearsal for the piece, so I could hear all the lovely bubbly ripply stuff just once, minimalist-style, without the distraction of the soppy string tunes. I also felt a litle ashamed of myself for having, when the orchestra first came on, noting the 1st flute only as Not Emmanuel. It was in fact Andreas Blau, and he played the the extremely demanding Ravel really damn well, so much so that at the end, Sir Rattle ran through the orchestra and gave him a big hug before anyone else. (I’ve sometimes been hugged by appreciative conductors after concerts, but that tends to be down the pub after they’ve had a beer or two, not on the actual stage. Maybe if I get to play D&C one day, and don’t bugger it up…) The final section of the piece had all the fire, fury and kick you could desire, and was not in the least diminished in excitement by its technical perfection (as at least one sniffy critic said). The audience would have liked an encore, but honestly, what would you follow an ending like that with? Let’s leave the table comfortably full after an imaginative and varied 5-course meal, not stuffed to ickiness by an extra helping of pudding.

* Don’t look it up. I made this word up.

Prom 62: Webern, Bruch, Albéniz, Rimsky-Korsakov

In the past I’ve seen (and, in fact, being on the receiving end of – but that’s another story) political protests outside orchestra concerts, but until now, never seen a concert being disrupted from inside. I think we can safely assume you don’t come to this blog looking for astute political analysis; I know enough about international politics to know how little I know, and not to get into online discussions about it. So here’s a report of what I observed at Thursday’s prom.

Right in the middle of the Webern, a group of a dozen or so in the Choir area (quite near me) suddenly stood up and started shouting, and attempted to sing Ode to Joy (with their own lyrics, which were indistinct). It utterly ruined the piece, of which I happen to be very fond. Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic didn’t bat an eyelid and carried on playing. The people in the row behind the protesters poked them and asked them to sit down and be quiet, to no avail. Security staff watched for a while, then decided to take action and moved in on the area, gently ushering them out.

As the introduction to the Bruch started, another group up in the Circle started yelling. The orchestra kept going for a little while, but then, as it was clear nobody could hear a note, stopped and waited for security to move this batch of protesters out before restarting. Meanwhile, several thousand people in the audience who had paid hard-earned money to come to hear Gil Shaham play the violin weren’t impressed at being prevented from hearing him, or the disrespect shown to his and the orchestra’s performance, and started yelling back ‘out, out’. They then gave the orchestra a supportive round of applause.

Amusingly, when the Arena prommers did their charity collection chant during the interval, a few over-hyped people started calling ‘get out’ and ‘go away’ at them, not realising that it was a completely different (and music-positive) group.

In both pieces in the second half, the moment the conductor’s arms were seen to raise, more shouting started, from various locations, followed by the irritated groan of several thousand very pissed-off orchestral music fans. Mehta, with an expression of wry amusement, lifted and lowered his hands a few times, accompanied by quickly-cut-off yells. It was not possible to make out any words, apart from the odd ‘Palestine’. Some were waving Palestine flags, but then some Arena prommers whipped out Israel flags and waved them back, with jeers. The rest of the audience booed them (both camps, I think). However, once it had died down, the actual music was left uninterrupted.

There has been some argument over whether the BBC was right or wrong to pull the live broadcast off the air. I’m inclined to think it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. I don’t really understand what last night’s behaviour was intended to achieve for the protesters, as the overall effect came across as shambolic and hysterical (which is odd, since they’d carefully advance-bought all these tickets in various bits of the hall).

And the music? The first half of Webern’s Passacaglia sounded very good – rhythmically precise and clearly-defined without being at all mechanical, and taken at a pacey tempo. I’ve written before about how important the Bruch violin concerto in Gm is to me, and when I hear it performed, unless something is wrong, I’m able to completely immerse in it. Obviously on this occasion something was wrong at the start, and it was difficult to sink into the music when not knowing if it was going to be vandalised at any minute, but it’s a tribute to the musicians that I soon forgot all about the situation and was able to be swept away as usual.

I’ve never much liked composers pastiching the folk traditions of other countries, particularly Debussy, Ravel, or – in this case – Rimsky-Korsakov partaking in the fashion for all things Spanish, and the Capriccio Espagnol, while an impressive technical showpiece for almost every part of the orchestra, was less musically effective than the ‘authentic’ Albéniz, which had some real fire to it. Stand-out instruments for me were cors both Anglais and French. Sitting in Choir East, we had something of a percussion masterclass from the large team of players directly below. It’s always fun seeing a couple of blokes belting the hell out of a set of tubular bells, one thumping the timps, and another flying round the xylophone. The down side is that it also means being near the bastarding triangle, and having to stick a finger in my ear to stop it setting my teeth on edge. I swear, I find the noise more irritating than a mobile phone going off, and when I am King of London I will outlaw the things.

Image © Lou Denim/EMI Classics, borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Proms Chamber Music 6: Martinů, Dutilleux, Prokofiev

I don’t go to chamber music concerts very often, and even more rarely ones where I don’t have a friend or two among the performers. It’s not that I dislike chamber music, but without complex orchestral textures and polyphonies, I find it difficult to get lost in the music in the same way. However, then along come two unmissable recitals in the same month, today’s in some ways quite the opposite of the previous – Pahud in bright noon sunshine at the Cadogan as opposed to Kennedy dim-lit and pushing midnight at the Albert – but also not without its similarities.

I nearly didn’t go, for the perhaps odd reason that I know the repertoire too well. Many years ago, as undergrad music students, we all picked a ‘specialist’ performance period for our main instrument; mine was early-mid 20th century flute music, smack in the middle of which are situated the 1940s Martinů and Prokofiev Sonatas, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. In fact, the programme was pretty much exactly what 20-year-old me would have picked for a recital (with Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir as encore). Except that 20-year-old me was not running around giving recitals, but worried and depressed because of the burning pains of tendinitis creeping steadily up my arms when I practised – the same RSI which stopped me playing (much) for years, and because of which, 18 years later, I’m typing this on a computer with ergonomic keyboard and have a box full of the different bandages, splints and wrist supports I’ve needed at various times in order to play. This is not in any sense going to be a poor-wounded-me memoir, just a little personalisation regarding how tightly the emotions of the past can be tied to certain pieces of music, and make one wary around them. Anyway, I then thought, get over yourself and your stupid wrists, it’s the principal flute of the Berlin Phil, playing stuff you know you like. Duh.

Emmanuel Pahud is not the bad boy of the flute world. Fresh and scrubbed, in a neat rumple-free suit and unnecessary tie, he looked improbably bright-eyed and perky. This would normally be concerning – if there’s one thing I dislike, it’s prim, pretty and polite flute playing – but I’ve heard him on recordings and with the BPO, so knew to pay no more attention to the going-to-an-interview-at-a-bank outfit than I do to beloved Nigel K dressing in clothes randomly pulled from someone’s dirty laundry basket. While obviously in possession of a gorgeous smooth legato across the registers, and filigree delicacy when required, what I like about Pahud is that he gives it welly, and plays around with tone and articulation effects, including sometimes allowing the kind of rough edges that remind you that the sound comes from human lips and lungs (and would have prim, polite flautists, who go through their recordings editing out every trace of breath or buzz, throwing their limp hands in the air in horror). I can imagine why some don’t like his style in certain repertoire, but for this kind of thing, it’s perfect.

So, Martinů was first up, and – typical – within half a minute I’m remembering the evil, snide old bitch of a flute teacher I was sent to in my first year at uni, and her weirdly poor sense of rhythm when it came to really-not-that-challenging 7/8 time sigs. The Martinů was one of the last sonatas I studied with her (and, neatly, the Prokofiev was one of the first I tackled with the teacher I left her for, Simon Desorgher). Anyway, having got those memories out of the way early on, I was able to enjoy the rest of the piece. I could go into detailed bar-by-bar analysis if required, but why? Martinů and Dutilleux were very enjoyable. Mr P gave a little talk between them, which was particularly interesting in terms of Dutilleux’s tone colours and “joy of sound”, although his comment about choice of fluttertongue technique “depending whether you are more gifted with the throat or with your tongue” caused two ladies near me to change colour.

The Prokofiev is my favourite modern flute sonata. (I expect my friends would assume it was Poulenc, but actually that’s my favourite flute sonata out of the ones I feel confident enough about to play in public. (*Aside* For anyone who was at Debbie’s birthday party, I can assure you I play it with greater accuracy without the copious quantities of wine in me.) Anyway, Prokofiev. Brilliant piece, although – no offense to Eric Le Sage’s piano – I always thought it deserved full orchestral backing, and would make a cracking addition to the concerto repertoire. (And for once, rather than flutes borrowing from the violin repertoire, they’ve tried to nick one of ours – to the extent of begging the composer himself to rewrite it for violin). It needs to sing, but also to shriek, whisper and growl; it requires technical acrobatics and poise, emotional intensity and a sense of humour, wine-soaked languidness and too-much-caffeine jitters. All these were present (although probably not literally in the case of the booze), plus the most ferocious spit-and-fur-flying, take-no-prisoners physical assault on the 4th movement that I’ve ever heard, which was incredibly exciting to be in the same room as, and which I hope manages to come across to some extent on the broadcast.

This is what live music is all about.

Thinking about it, my pick of Merle Noir for encore is all wrong for following Prokofiev, and although I would love to hear him play it live sometime, the frothy but lovely Fauré Fantaisie (another from the Paris Conservatoire flute competition Greatest Hits Songbook) was much more suitable for re-establishing one’s composure (for performers and audience alike). I happened to be leaving the building at the same time as Mr P, and saw him stop for a few autographs and smiley photos with fans, before being bundled into a taxi to the airport for an evening concert in another country. Nice guy too, then. And another musician to add to the list of concert schedules I’ll now be keeping an eye on.

Image borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms

Prom 31: Kennedy plays Bach

I was both very excited and rather apprehensive about this concert, and anyone who has read my previous post on Nigel Kennedy will understand why. I was looking forward to my favourite violinist playing one of the best composers in history, but also steeled for a fair amount of waiting around, whimsical anecdotes, and interminable prog rock noodlings. The 10pm start time came and went, but the 20 min delay was, as Mr K was keen to point out, “not late because of me”, and probably due to a minor security incident or the like, plus it taking a while to ram the auditorium, arena and gallery to a full capacity rarely seen at Late Night proms.

And then, with a minimum of fuss, 45-odd minutes of solid, brilliant, wonderful Bach. On the way in I’d overheard the conversation of a couple of what I’m going to (perhaps unfairly) call ClassicFM fans who, while very keen on Nigel, were rather concerned about this JS Bach, and whether the music was going to be “all stuffy” and “difficult”. All credit to them for giving it a go, and I hope the highly-charged, exuberant and joyous Partita No. 3 in E (Prelude), which opened the concert, won them over.

The main work, though, was the Partita No. 2 in Dm in its entirety – something of a marathon. *Digression alert* Violinists – were you aware we flutes have been appropriating your music all this time? I have a couple of well-thumbed and scribbled-on volumes of unaccompanied Bach nicked from various partitas, suites, sonatas, etc. for violin, cello and whatever – all transposed to fit the flute range, broken chord appoggiaturas substituting for double-stops. And they work, because the magical thing about Bach is that it sounds good on ANY instrument. Really – any. Even tenor saxophone – I know, I’ve tried. (Didn’t work so well on theremin, but this is almost certainly due to my lack of skill – sure it would sound great if Clara Rockmore was playing it.) Anyway, the 1st movement of the Dm is one particularly frequently hacked through by young flautists, as it was on one of the Grade lists (VII?), so it was very good to actually hear it on the originally-intended instrument, and more to the point, not hacked through, but played thoughtfully, lovingly, and with each phrase given the depth it deserves. And for the rest of the movements, I’ll go with ‘stunning’, but please help yourselves from the superlative buffet.

It’s rare for me to say this, but after the marathon of intensity and virtuosity, I was actually ready for something light – a bit of baroque-jazz crossover, even. Not only does Bach work on any instrument, but it can also take being swung without sounding daft – as has been demonstrated by Swingles et al. Here, Mr K was joined by friends (whose names I didn’t catch) on double bass, guitar and drum (just the one) and used the Air “on the G string” as a launch pad for a riot of quote-heavy semi-improvised jazz shenanigans. Having been described as “all of you cats is like the most knowledgeable in the world”, no less, the audience had not emitted a single clap between movements of the Partita (saving them all up for thunderous applause at the end), but were also aware that in the jazz tradition it is correct etiquette to applaud as each member of the band finishes their solo. The obvious tension between knowing one is supposed to show appreciation at a certain point, and the orchestral fan’s ‘but- but- there’s music playing and we don’t want to make a noise and so miss a single note of it!’ was quite amusing.

Encores were all Fats Waller tunes, and they were charming. At around 11.40pm, the audience reluctantly let the man go, hopefully to enjoy a few well-deserved beers and bask in the afterglow of an awesome gig.

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.