The Last Of The Proms (Part 2)

Tuesday 15 September 2009

(Part 1 is here.)

When I get to gigs at all, it’s because of what is being played rather than who is playing it. I’m not a huge Stravinsky fan but I had to go hear the Proms performance of Les noces, that fantastically eccentric piece for singers, chorus, four pianos and a load of percussion. My general lack of enthusiasm for Stravinsky comes partly from disappointment that he moved on to pursue other musical ideas after writing something as awesome as Les noces. It’s a sad, stupid blind spot I have which persuades me, when I hear this piece, not to listen to any of Stravinky’s other music for fear of spoiling it.

The real highlight for me for the Proms season was the late-night concert one Friday devoted to George Crumb. Crumb’s music really needs to be heard live to appreciate it, not only for the theatrical elements of its performance, or for the spatial placement of sounds (more than once the musicians had to relocate from the stage to one of the balconies to achieve an elusive, distant quality to their sound), but for the subtlety and complexity of the sounds he specifies.

These details can’t be fully captured on recordings. Just one example: the soprano begins and ends Ancient Voices of Children with her back to the audience, singing into the resonating strings of the amplified piano. The Nash Ensemble played these pieces superbly, keeping the technical details in focus without ever losing the dramatic and emotional impact of the music. Each piece ended with a long, reflective silence from the audience before breaking into applause. That’s another thing you don’t get to experience in recordings. Again, in the Royal Albert Hall the best place to appreciate all this was standing in the arena.

(Churlish footnote: Ancient Voices of Children has a part for a boy soprano. In the programme guide was the note, “Owing to the late hour of this concert it is not possible for a boy soprano to take part in tonight’s performance; the BBC is grateful to Amy Haworth for agreeing to take on this role at short notice.” Sounds like there was a late intervention from a Health’n’Safety officer, and one disappointed youth.)