Tuesday, 5 July 2016

He marched them up to the top of the hill…

Although billed simply as a concert of “Family Classics”, Sunday afternoon’s performance by the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra at Pittville Pump Room was really about painting pictures; crystallizing moments and places in time – each in a different country; a different climate; a different medium. And even though every piece was familiar (“classics” in both senses), this did not mean any subsequent dimming of the CSO’s habitual – one might say trademark – passion: either in effort or emotion. As always, their sound was spine-tingling and resonant; full of precision and love (of communication; of music; of involvement). I may have left Cheltenham with the closing ascents of the cellos and double-basses pulsing through the soles of my feet; but I was still somehow hovering a few millimetres above the ground (as I always am after their concerts); my soul raised ever so slightly further heavenwards; my heart light as air – both filled with intoxicating and inspiring joy.

This was an artistic Grand Tour – not of forgotten fusty museums or dusky, dusty long-galleries – but one that ensured our minds and lungs were filled with freshness and vitality: as canvases, boards and reams of fine paper were coloured before us en plein air, under some fascinating skies.

First, sultry southern Spain: and a wonderful, perfectly-targeted introductory chat from cellist Stephen Pett – who then went on to conduct a selection of pieces from Bizet’s second Carmen suite in a beautifully crisp, energetic and flawlessly communicative fashion: eliciting some magically responsive playing from all sections of the CSO (with especial awe for their as-always stunning brass section – especially lead trumpeter Paul Broekman: who was on sizzling form). The percussionists – more of which, later – were also spectacular in their commitment to transport us to the baking esplanadas, plazas de toros, and that famed fábrica de cigarillos.

Yes, this was the top four of Bizet’s greatest hits; but familiarity, here, bred admiration. Thrilling, persuasive and ardent; and with fresh insights galore (subtle changes of tempo and dynamics; and no giving in to the urge to rush or to gloat). A lack of bombast, and a constant glow of sublimity, thus helped produce a powerful, detailed rendering of all those (in)famous operatic characters – more a skilfully-crafted, insightful, mesmerisingly three-dimensional bright, sun-baked pastel, though, than a coarse, broad-brushstroke oil-painting. Vivid, yes; but not crude; impressively considered and charismatically intelligent. The deeper the gaze, the more transcendent minutiae emerged. Simply put, a beautiful combination of zeal and skill. What a great way to start our tour of mainland Europe!

Then, suddenly, we were whisked away to the cooler, more crystalline meadows and forests of fairytale Russia for Prokofiev’s enticing Peter and the Wolf. This is where the woodwind worked their magic – especially grumpy grandad Peter Kerr, beautifully overacting his infirmity on bassoon! Special mention should also be made of the three nasty Reservoir Wolves (“It’s the wool-uff!”) on French horns: hiding with ferocious intent behind intimidating sunglasses. (Grrr.) The whole Orchestra was knowingly in character – those thunderous drummers particularly shocking and scary (one small child in front of me instantly sticking his fingers in his assaulted ears – although with a cheeky grin that stretched between them…): emitting barrages of explosive power as the boastful hunters – and proving, after the Bizet, that they weren’t just one-hit wonders (boom-boom).

This was all wonderfully overseen and guided (with a little help from David Curtis, now back on the podium) by narrator Miranda Krestovnikoff: who not only spoke the words clearly, but gave them great weight and power with a superb range of expressive gestures and facial expressions. Altogether, a series of etchings of the highest quality; an illuminated storyboard of intense, thrilling delight.

After the interval, a sublime watercolour rendering of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony. As much as I love the piano sonatas (to play and to listen to); the string quartets; especially the Drei Equali for trombones… – and although I am one of those awkward types who much prefers the even-numbered symphonies… – yet I have never been particularly moved by the orchestral works (not even by my favourite, the Eighth).

And yet, yesterday, I didn’t need the brook or storm: this performance provoked not only intense feelings; but more than enough resultant drops of water simply trickling down my frabjous face. In fact, the whole symphony flowed from beginning to end: gathering force (as torrents in summer) as it widened and deepened. (As Curtis said, afterwards, you need to keep the pages turning… – and he did: with marvellous, expressive, almost beautiful, control; and heaps of that proprietary trust.) Not that there was any rush….

[If I ever do lose the little that is left of my hearing, by the way, I shall still attend the man’s concerts. Just observing him ‘at work’ is a delight in itself. He communicates the music, and his wishes, with simple, graceful gestures and gazes. There is an economy of showmanship, mixed with an intelligence of expression. Genial magic flows from that baton. (Wizard!)]

This performance felt almost Straussian in its programmatic, extended tone-poem journey; never losing momentum: even in the second movement Scene am Bach – which Curtis told me Yehudi Menuhin once beautifully suggested should be performed as if a leaf, feather-like, is slowly descending, floating on and down that perfectly-painted stream: which the first movement – Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande – had delivered us to. (It almost takes longer to say than it does to perform.) But I am getting ahead of myself….

We started in sunshine: with that feeling you get at the end of a long journey, reaching the beautiful destination you have chosen for a day’s hike; emerging, breathing in that wonderful clean air, the evocative aroma of freshly-cut grass (and often, it has to be said, of the occasional flocks or herds of animals – although, having worked on a farm, I may be biased in finding such smells pleasant…). You stretch your arms and legs; and your whole body beams with expressed joyousness and celebration. Why, asks Beethoven, would you possibly want to be anywhere else but immersed in this paradise?

There was some beautiful delicacy, a few gentle pauses – as if, looking around, Curtis was taking stock of all this glory – before setting off. This is Beethoven as walker, wanderer, in touch with nature; his heart exposed to the raw elements – a musical Wordsworth roaming the foothills. (Was there more confidence – yet, somehow, contemplation – in the opening repeat; or was I already dreaming of blue-remembered mountains and valleys?!) Triplets in the cellos and violas, under sustained, Mozartian wind chords, presaged a change of atmosphere. What is coming? Is there a hint of rain in the air, cooling your face? A premonition of the storm to come?

And then we’re singing like the birds, momentarily soaring into the sky as the countermelody emerges; and the horns are now no longer wicked as wolves, but delicate as a wisp of cirrus. Such contrasts were rendered beautifully – painted, even – by Curtis and the orchestra. Somehow, all those repeats of the main motif just increased the happiness – never did this music sound in any way mundane: even though Beethoven never ever lets go of that key rhythm. I think it must be those contrasts, the light and shade….

If this movement ‘says’ anything – and, for me, it speaks volumes – it is of the gentle climb at the beginning of your day: following a friendly, familiar route, with the sun hiding-and-seeking behind fleeting puffs of cloud, as the views and landscape broaden gloriously. All this supported by some wonderful writing for the cellos and basses – including not only thematic material; but some superb, suspenseful pedal-points.

Some beautiful, immensely clever string writing also opens that tremulous Scene am Bach – a very polite stream to begin with: tumbling gently over rocks between grassy banks; and forming almost-still pools. It ebbs and flows as we walk alongside it – or float leaflike along its surface – gradually changing its character. Are those birds we hear, high in the blazing sky?

Then the brook swells, momentarily, and the leaf continues its journey downstream, wafted slowly, cradled almost. The delicate orchestration here was sumptuously rendered: a conversation between wind and strings; the sky and the water. But hush! Another pool; a moment for reflection… – then onwards again. Is that us singing, or the stream humming to itself with hints of Schubert? No, it’s a nightingale, tempted out of its hiding place by the darkening skies. The quail and cuckoo return its call with a hint of alarm – such gorgeous gossamer woodwind playing; the strings now responding in kind: embracing them….

The storm brews: dark and invigorating as my favourite espresso – but it is too far way, hovering on the distant horizon, for us to worry about. Yet. Time for a quick pint in the local hostelry; whilst the resident Morris troupe (who may already have imbibed a little) entertain us on the green outside! Those birds still hover above us, though, as sentinels; and there is still that hint of rain. You lift your dampened finger to the breeze: just as an alpine horn wafts across the valley. Yes – a final warning. Here comes the rain again, falling on your head like a memory. Better dash for cover. Quickly, now! But we’ve got to finish our round, say the Morris dancers… – before joining the sheltering huddle!

And, finally, those black clouds have arrived – yet so soon! Thunder and lightning (very, very frightening); large hailstones; huge dollops of rain….

As the storm drew in – eyes closed at the back of the hall – I was reminded of an ascent of the Helvellyn range, forty or so years ago: trapped on the summit by weather summoned as if by Lear:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man!

We had hoped to descend by Striding Edge; but were convinced that the squalls and cloud cover, never mind the pelting, hard drops of rain, would render this impossibly dangerous. But as with Beethoven – here lifting us, weightlessly above clearing, cushioning clouds into rich blue skies; soaring, eagle-like above the Austrian alps – so the ever-changeable and surprising Lakeland microclimate. And so we worked our way down, as planned, our sodden clothes steaming in the welcoming sun; any breeze devoted only to caretaking the remaining clouds; shepherding them like reluctant Herdwicks to distant corners of the glistening sky.

No wonder that final chorale – Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm – is so joyous. The storm has been weathered; the terrain conquered; joy is unconfined and reaffirmed. But again, I am getting ahead of myself….

A little light does break through, tantalisingly – but not for long. A piercing piccolo cuts the air sharply – the shrieks of those stranded; or nature’s vehemence? Oh, to be the conductor of such a storm! Prospero conjuring up revenge from the podium!

But, yes, it clears. A fresh horn call, and the reappearing birds welcome the returning sun… – and what warmth it brings! Tentatively, at first, as the rain begins to depart (wonderful string playing; and a stupendous control of dynamics, holding back the floods of joy). But they cannot be restrained for long. Those feelings grow in speed and volume, despite recurrent hesitancy (underlined by the cellos and basses soaring from the depths of their grateful hearts).

Thanks be to God! (Albeit this is an ode to joy with reservations… perhaps?) Curtis takes deep breaths, as Beethoven piles on the tension (as no-one else can) – knowing the exact moment to break free. And, when it does… phew. Two chords. That’s all it takes: heralded by a muted trumpet, growing rapidly in confidence.

Now all we have to do, is climb downwards, back to our starting point. All is well. All is blessed.

I was tempted to reference Caspar David Friedrich, here; but the brushes involved in creating this landscape hinted more – to my mind – at Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bruckner, even Mahler. I find it utterly astonishing that this rolling, unsurpassable Pastoral Symphony was written in parallel with the spiky, punchy Fifth – but both symphonies demonstrate Beethoven’s indefinable genius at experimentation: with standard musical forms, structures, motifs and repeated rhythm. On paper, so much duplication looks staid and almost tedious. But there are subtle differences: waxing and waning, accumulating a profundity and emotional depth. Keep the pages turning, and they illuminate and cross-fertilize our imaginations.

It’s good to have your preconceptions (and preoccupations) smoothed away; and driving home, under blue skies, and heaped pillows of sculpted glowing cloud, I could not help but sing that final shepherds’ hymn – and with great gladness in my heart. Our local hills may not be mountains; nor our weather as tumultuous and threatening as an alpine storm – but I imagine Beethoven would have fallen in love with the Cotswolds: painting Constable-type pictures, Wordsworthian poems in music, as he strolled along.

Stand atop Leckhampton Hill and tell me I’m wrong.

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