August 18th, 2016


I do love a good Funeral March

Big names draw big audiences. I'd suggest that I choose concerts primarily on the basis of the works being performed, but I won't suggest that I am immune to the artists performing. I picked this concert out primarily for the Wagner; seeing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra would be interesting too, but most people seemed to have picked it for Martha Argerich. The Proms queue draws cabbages and kings: somewhere in front of me, a chap whose worldly possessions seem to fit into a 1970s shopping caddy; behind me, some privileged students who were out-competing each other for who had the most exclusive tutoring and/or musical parents. The queue already stretched beyond the base of the steps and onto Prince Consort Road when I arrived, but it was moved up regularly by the stewards. I was several rows back, but just in front of the TV camera that had taken up residence for the evening in the middle of the Arena - in line for the piano.

With Daniel Barenboim conducting, the concert began with Jörg Widmann's overture Con brio, inspired by recognisable fragments from Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies. A curious rather than engaging work, but one in which the virtuosity of the orchestra, and the timpani player in particular, were pushed to their limits.

The highlight for most people was Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, and I won't deny it was deservedly so. Martha Argerich was carefully in control of yet another virtuosic piece; the piano was clear although the inverse-square law meant it was quieter than I'm used to, but that does highlight how much I take for granted the sound at the front of the Arena. One offbeat aspect of being at the front is that you can sometimes tell, by the music on the stands, whether an orchestral encore is coming up. This isn't the case for soloists, of course; but when the stage hands roll up producing a second piano stool, clearly the game is afoot. Argerich and Barenboim returned to give a piano duet encore: Schubert's Rondo in A, D951.

The second half was all Wagner; so not only were the orchestra demonstrating that Arabs and Israelis can get along together, the Israeli musicians at least were breaking another taboo (for obvious reasons, Wagner was for a long time not performed in Israel, and I understand it's unusual and perhaps frowned upon even now.). But you wouldn't have known that from their professional performance. Starting with apparently the work most often performed in Proms history, the overture to Tannhäuser, they moved on to excerpts from Götterdämmerung - Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Funeral March - and finished the advertised programme with another overture, this time Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Barenboim's time-keeping was well off, and the concert had already significantly over-run, but he returned to the stage, microphone in hand. Fortunately he was brief. "We will skip the rest of Act One; we will skip Act Two; here is the prelude to Act Three" - and so, an orchestral encore. Then another encore - the prelude to Act Three of Lohengrin. Although I would have liked the Ride of the Valkyries, it was probably for the best that the orchestra then quickly took their leave. GWR managed to take 50 minutes to get from Paddington to Reading, and there were night-time roadworks on the IDR, so it was a late night indeed by the time I got home.