I’m listening to a blistering performance of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No.2 live on the radio from the BBC Proms, performed by Daniil Trifonov and the London Symphony Orchestra. As the piece finishes, there’s sustained and rapturous applause until the audience is rewarded with a thrilling encore.
For the last five or so years the BBC Proms have become a bit of a feature of our summers as we discover (or in my case rediscover) classical music. We’ll attend two or three concerts, but mostly it’s a radio soundtrack, not always listened to terribly closely, but sometimes a particular piece will grab my otherwise wandering attention. And then there’s the Proms applause, the roars and cheers, the stamping feet – I’d tune in for this alone. When an encore ensues it’s a special and privileged moment. For all the encores I’ve heard on the radio, until this year I’d never experienced one in the flesh at the Royal Albert Hall.
Then, last Thursday 8th August, we were high up in the circle for the much anticipated return of Mitsuko Uchida, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. This was definitely an Event. I don’t know the piece well, but Uchida’s stage presence was mesmerising, and her playing flawless and impassioned. There was a wonderful diva-esque moment when she shrugged off her diaphanous shawl during the first movement. It was fascinating, too, to watch the orchestra, how expressive all the players are, how focussed, working together to create afresh a piece of music written over 200 years ago. Mitsuko Uchida had barely flung her right hand up from the final phrase when the applause broke out, the bravos and whistles and calls for encore. And we were not disappointed. After several bows and acknowledging the orchestra and conductor, Uchida sat at the piano again and played a quiet, delicate, Bach-like (I thought, without any certainty) piece, which I discovered the following day in an online review was indeed Bach. The most beautiful warm-down after a feat of musical athleticism.
And that was only the first half! Following the interval, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage to tackle Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. If the Beethoven/Uchida was an Event, this was a Journey. The drama built over five movements, with some catchy melodies and nice pastoral touches early on. By the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, I was grinning at the jaunty absurdity, and the great flourishes of off stage percussion. The final movement, Dream of a Sabbath Night, I noted later in my journal as ‘quite demented’, with Jansons leaping in the air as he pulled the orchestra together for the explosive finish. Fittingly thunderous applause from the audience, and we were treated then to an astonishingly bravura piece that almost rivalled the Berlioz in intensity. Driving rhythms and Hungarian or Jewish sounding textures and Gypsy-like fiddle-playing from the first violins. This, I learnt the following day, was Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc. By then, my palms had just about stopped tingling from all the clapping. Bravo, bravo, encore!