July 17th, 2004


In the beginning ...

There are a handful of pieces of music that everyone recognises, even if they don't know the name of the piece or anything about it. Beethoven's Symphony No 5 and Strauss' The Blue Danube spring to mind.

Into this category I think one can comfortably place Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV565. There are few pieces with such a dramatic opening, and what better way to inaugurate the 2004 Proms season than that, on the newly refurbished Royal Albert Hall organ. After all the publicity during the week, Martin Neary seemed quite restrained for the most part, though in the arena I could certainly feel the rumble of the 64' pipe in the closing chords of the fugue, something which was not so evident having now seen and heard the TV footage.

The reinterpretation and rescoring of music always seems to be a much more controversial act than similar reinterpretation of other performance art, such as plays. There are many, many versions of the Toccata and Fugue - perhaps the most well known, besides the original, are Stokowski's orchestration (as featured in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia) and Busoni's piano transcription. On this occasion there was a "unique" combination of Bach's original organ solo for the toccata and Sir Henry Wood's orchestration of the fugue. On the whole the orchestration works well - I particularly liked the use of the harp in places, but in other sections the brass perhaps obscured some of the finer details. Stokowski's version fiddles with the tempo of the piece but Wood's was reasonably literal in pace, which I prefer - as Bach himself said, there is nothing more to it than playing the notes as they are written.

By tradition, the First Night has a choral piece, and on this occasion it was Elgar's The Music Makers. According to the programme notes, this piece is "rarely performed", and I don't expect any radical change to that state. The music was pleasant background, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performed well as the solo singer, the choir was fine, but the words ... well, the first stanza just about stands up, but the second begins "With wonderful deathless ditties" and after that it's a bit of a decline. I tried to keep out of my mind "There once was a man called Humph", which would have scanned just as well. Apparently there are many musical references, including to Rule, Britannia! and The Marseillaise, which I missed, and Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, which I spotted and worked rather well.

The second half was a performance of Holst's The Planets. In the first half, we witnessed the power of the RAH organ; now, Leonard Slatkin showed us the power of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who repeatedly filled the hall with sound on their astrologically-inspired tour of the Solar System. Despite a sound in the audience that was curiously like someone's last breath at the dramatically drawn out chords at the end of Mars, and a rather wobbly French Horn during Venus, the piece was a tour de force. Jupiter was perhaps a little slow, but not as slow and solemn as some conductors would perform it. In Uranus, the Magician, the organ again took part and battled successfully with the orchestra; in Neptune, members of the choir (presumably hidden somewhere in the gallery) hummed their way ethereally to outer space.

New security measures require many more items of baggage to be security-checked and deposited in cloakrooms; while perhaps the surprise is that previously they haven't done this, it does make for extra delays in entry and exit from the hall, and I do hope the RAH might be able to improve their systems here.