Review – BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Prom 21, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, R. Strauss Don Juan and Dance of the Seven Veils, Walton Violin Concerto, Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky Cantata, July 30th 2011

BBC PromsEvery year Mrs Chrisparkle and I take a trip down to London to see a Prom. The choice of which Prom is often the source of lengthy debate and the weighing of pros and cons, until finally a compromise is made – music we think we’ll enjoy on a date that is convenient and with no work the next day. Albert HallGetting to and from the Royal Albert Hall from Northampton is no mean feat. Anyway, this year it was an easy choice – Alexander Nevsky on a Saturday!

We always make an occasion of it and treat ourselves to a slap up meal in one of the RAH’s restaurants. A couple of years ago we upgraded to the Coda Restaurant, a real destination eatery. This year, for some reason I can’t quite remember, I booked for the Elgar Room. This will be the subject of a future blog post, quite possibly tomorrow. Suffice it to say at this stage, I probably shan’t make the same decision next year.

Andris NelsonsMoving on. It’s all about the Hall and the concert, after all. Our conductor was Andris Nelsons, and from our vantage point he seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. We started off with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, one of three pieces of music in the programme that was completely new to me. In an action packed seventeen minutes it seemed to have everything you could possibly want from a piece of classical music. Sparks, crashes, searing notes, quiet bits, lively bits, all coming together to form a satisfying whole. Don’t ask me to be more erudite about the performance, that’s all I can offer you on the subject.

MidoriA palpable sense of expectation for the next item – Walton’s Violin Concerto, with Midori as soloist. When not moonlighting as a melon-based liqueur, her day job is as a fantastic violin player. She has a commanding presence on the podium, and she got the most extraordinary sounds out of her instrument, made in 1734 according to the programme notes. View of the BalconyWhen she feels the music vibe, she really feels it, contorting her neck and upper body into the most uncomfortable looking positions that allow her to express the real personality of the music. I have to be honest here – I didn’t really like the concerto per se. It didn’t really inspire me musically, and I know that’s my fault. To me it was almost too clever, too difficult, too unnatural for me to get a sense of anything that might approximate a tune. But this is nothing to do with the performance, which I could tell was sensational.

Proms AudienceWhilst I was in an interval queue for the Gents, Mrs C observed Midori sweeping majestically out of the Hall, through one of the side vestibules, where a group of onlookers withdrew to the side to allow her to pass; at which point she graciously, and much to their surprise, shook hands with each and every one of them. Mrs C felt it was one of those unexpected moments of accidental theatricality, and I wish I’d seen it.

Alexander Nevsky himselfThe second half of the concert started with my favourite, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata. The CBSO, augmented by their wonderful chorus, gave a lively, exciting performance. There are so many delightful passages in this music, and they shone as usual. If I’m honest, I thought the balance of sounds within the orchestra for the Battle on the Ice was a bit off. If, like me, you imagine one army represented by the jolly string tune, and the other army by the discordant brass section, the string army never got a look in, for the brass were on the ascendant from Round One. But the percussion was great; I particularly loved the xylophone playing and the magnificent huge drum is the stuff of childhood fantasy. Nadezhda SerdiukThe chorus were spot on, and it was all magnificently stirring. I should also give mention to the mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Serdiuk, who waited patiently on the podium for her four minutes of singing in the penultimate section, and it was well worth the wait, I thought her performance was very moving.

The final piece was Richard Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Again, full of vitality and exuberance, engaging and beautiful. Albert Hall lit upFor me, though, it was a let down after the high of the Prokofiev. I feel the programme would have been much more rounded if the Salome had started the second half rather than ended it.

Nevertheless an extremely enjoyable concert, and we all emerged triumphantly into Kensington Gore, on a wave of Bolshevik fervour.

Review – BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, 15th August, LPO, Musorgsky, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Prokofiev

BBC PromsFirst and likely to be only visit to the Proms this year for a concert of Russian music, with which I was mostly unfamiliar.

It always feels like such a special occasion to go to a Prom and share a musical experience with such a large audience, in charmingly grand surroundings, with good friends. Even if the bar prices at the RAH are stonkingly heavy, and why do they not let you take drinks inside the hall, even in plastic glasses, like virtually every other theatre in the land? It means you have to down your Pinot ultra rapidly, as you spend at least a quarter of the interval merely making your way from your seat to the bar and back. Vladmir JurowskiAnyway. Don’t let me be grumpy about such a pleasant evening.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski started with Musorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain a la Rimsky-Get your corsets off, and it was a very pacey and exciting rendition. Full of attack and sinisterness, but ending all mellifluous and relaxed.

Then we had Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1, with Julia Fischer on the violin. Now I’m not overfamiliar with Shostakovich. I think I had the day off school when we did him. His surname always sounds so intellectual to me that I think there is an impenetrable boundary in my brain and appreciation of Shosta is just one league too far me to contemplate. I’m sure I’m wrong though. Julia FischerThis Violin Concerto starts languidly but builds through lots of musical angst and violence to end up a most satisfying piece. And what about Ms Fischer? What a star turn she was! Extraordinary playing, and incredible energy. To say she went down a storm was an understatement. Probably the most enthusiastic reaction to a Prom performance I have ever seen. (And I have seen – oh – at least six Proms!!)

After the gulped interval wine, we had Scriabin’s Reverie. Very nice. Very short. You can’t help but wonder why he didn’t work it up into a proper piece. Still it was a nice aperitif before Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony, which is full of the industrial clashes and crashes of that type of early Soviet music, representing the cacophony of the noble operation of machinery. Jurowski had the LPO pounding away twenty to the dozen and it was a violently stirring sound.

All that and an evening rounded off with a nice meal in old Polish Kitchen style, to continue the Eastern Bloc theme. Triffic!