If you have been following my posts on this website you will have seen that I have written thusfar exclusively on wine and food; however in my intro to the site I state that I intend to write on “food, wine, music and all the things that make life worth living”. As such, I am well overdue a blog on music – which I intend to rectify with this post.
Since I moved to London in 2007 I have been making annual pilgrimages to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms series. The breadth of music, calibre of artistes and ensembles and the atmosphere is unrivalled by anything that I have ever experienced in the classical music world. Furthermore, ticket prices are very affordable – with day Promming tickets set at a recession-busting £5 and tickets in the Circle starting for most concerts at around £10 – £15. I think this represents phenomenal value (particularly when contrasted to other London venues, such as The Royal Opera House).
My usual tactic for the Proms is to pick five concerts that I particularly want to see and buy tickets in advance, through the only part of the Promming experience that I detest, the Prom Virtual Queue – something that must be endured with fortitude and patience. Utilising this method I have seen the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America play Shostakovich 10 and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Donald Runnicles, perform a breath-taking and majestic Tannhäuser.
I also earmark a number of concerts that I may attend if I have the time and the inclination. This was the case with yesterday’s Proms concert. I was attracted to it on two fronts – an all-Russian repertoire and the London Symphony Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. My resolve was severely tested as rain decided to hammer down on us as we queued for the Arena tickets, but Promenarders are made of pretty stern stuff and a bit of drizzle never dampens our resolve (figuratively speaking, literally speaking, of course, it did).
I’ll confess to being a bit confused at first by the programming; the concert was to start with Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B Minor. It is slightly unconventional to start a programme with a symphony – particularly as there was a concerto and a new work in the running order too. I’d played Borodin’s First with my amateur orchestra relatively recently, but I’ve been listening to his second for a long while now and was pleased for an occasion to hear it. From the dramatic string chords to start, through the beautifully mournful Horn and wind soli in the third movement and the energetic finale, this was an extremely pleasing performance of a piece that I’d only previously heard on recordings.
The stage was re-set to allow the Grand Piano to take centre stage and on-came Daniil Trifonov to play Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Major. I will admit freely that this was a piece and a composer that I had no prior knowledge of whatsoever. However, it was the pianist who grabbed my attention and not the piece; Trifonov played with an incredibly expressive and genuine style. It was immediately apparent to me, standing 20m away, that he was very much immersed in the music. In particular, the slow passages were caressed through the keys to produce a tender sound that evoked tremendous emotion. There were some fast technical passages, but these did not seem to be the focus of the piece. At the end of the piece, Trifonov received a tremendous ovation and his delight was obvious. However, he was not done yet; he launched into an awe-inspiring encore – an arrangement for solo piano for the Danse Infernal from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This was a piece that I played with my youth orchestra (admittedly a fair few years ago now), and as such I was familiar with. Trifinov burst into this piece at breakneck speed and played with a fury that made you feel that the piece may well fall over itself at any moment, but it didn’t. As he was hammering away at the chords of the tune, I could clearly hear the sounds of the brass fanfares coming through his right hand. At other times the piece wound down to quieter, more reflective moments, before lurching into another raging attack. The piece ended abruptly and the audience roared its delight; this was truly an exceptional performance all the more impressive for someone making their Proms debut – it was clear to all present that a star has emerged.
You can listen to this remarkable performance here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038593j (until 20 August 2013), the encore starts at 1 hour in; I highly recommend it!
After the interval there was a UK premier of a piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, The Rider on the White Horse. I fall into the category of people who tend to be highly sceptical regarding modern pieces, with their propensity for atonality and lack of discernible melody. This piece was, however, impressive in its breadth of noise. Several times it called the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ into operation, which really did create some sound!
However, the main focus for me in the second half was in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is a suite of 10 piano pieces that was subsequently adapted for orchestra by Ravel. This was another piece that I was hearing live for the first time and it just took my breath away. It starts off with the famous main theme on solo trumpet. This theme is then passed around the orchestra amongst various different players. One of the great aspects of this piece is that it allows every instrument of the orchestra to feature and have their respective moments of glory. In fact, Ravel took this even further and introduces atypical orchestral instruments – including the saxophone and the euphonium, and gives them great prominence; something he also does in his Bolero. The beautiful moments of this piece were overshadowed to a certain extent by the sheer power of the ending. It was truly brilliant to hear the augmented brass section really playing at their top volumes at the end and it created a truly memorable ending to the piece. The audience positively erupted into applause at the end and the applause continued for a good five minutes.
When I reflect that I wasn’t certain whether to attend this concert and that I then obtained a ticket for a measly five pounds, I feel that this was one of the better decisions that I have made in recent times. I will remember this performance for a long, long time. Such is the beauty of the Proms.