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Prom 48: Gurzenich Orchestra / Markus Stenz

August 23, 2008

I didn’t end up going to the Royal Albert Hall last night. I fully intended to but various things conspired to make the visit impossible. The closest I got to Prince Consort Road was Trafalgar Square.

My bike needed picking up from the bicycle repair shop. In truth, I could have picked it up at the weekend, but after the week I’ve had I figured I was allowed to treat myself. After some complication with my new PIN and getting it unlocked I was soon pedalling my way to White City in the morning on a fully serviced bike.

Test results were the next thing on my personal agenda for the day before I actually got into work. It was those test results which came with the rider that I would need to visit the doctor for a full discussion about them. Inevitably, I worried about them. I’d need to see the doctor before the bank holiday weekend got underway otherwise I’d worry all weekend.

A combination of the only appointment avaialble at the doctor’s being at 5.40pm and me not being able to take my newly reacquired bike back home with me on the commuter train meant I had to leave it at Charing Cross, get to the doctor’s surgery for 5.40pm and then subsequently return to Charing Cross to get my trusty bike. I figured I’d listen on the radio when I finally got home. But would I be able to get home by 7.00pm to hear it live?

The answer was no. Instead I was stranded on a non-moving train somewhere outside London Bridge having to settle with a less than satisfactory FM reception on my mobile phone. Believe me, listening to Mahler’s 5th symphony when the radio signal lurches from mono to stereo and back again does take a little getting used to.

Still, listening to Mahler’s famous work in this way turned out to be quite a special experience. Mahler isn’t the condensed romanticist I had assumed he was. His music doesn’t alienate me in the slightest. In fact, even though I initially considered the first part of the concert – an unwieldly 74 minutes a challenge to get through (hence one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Hall to hear it) – those 74 minutes raced by. Undoubtedly the mark of a work which pulls the listener in, even those listening with poor reception.

I hung around Trafalgar Square for the first and second movements before making my way back on the train from Charing Cross to Catford Bridge. The square was filling up with tourists, drawn to the big screen at the foot of Nelson’s Column on which the BBC’s Olympics coverage was being shown. It was a slightly surreal experience listening to a live broadcast of musicians playing from a location only a few miles away, absorbing the implicit sense of excitement for the 2012 Olympic handover party on Sunday.

You’d think I wasn’t concentrating enough on the music. The truth is, however, that by the time the famous third movement started up (strings only, gorgeous and dangerous listening for anyone on the brink of an unexpected emotional response) I was on the train back home. I was doing battle with more commuters than I anticipated, none of them particularly pleased my bike was taking up valuable space in the compartment. As soon as the opening melody in the third movement emerged from the blackness of the Albert Hall, I felt goosebumps creep up from the bottom of my spine all the way to the top of my neck. If a crappy FM reception of a live broadcast can still do that then that means the music is something special.

I listened again to the Mahler this morning after I made a point of listening to the Leonore Overture which appeared last in Prom 48’s programme. Everything had a historical link (this was repeating a concert the Gurzenich Orchestra had given in 1904 only without the Stockhausen, obviously) as well as a Cologne link. The band were from Cologne, so too Stockhausen, his work Punkte being played on what would have been his 80th birthday.

Flipping the concert order around in the way they had done in 1904 made for one startling observation. Listen to the Leonore Overture which starts around 26 minutes in part 3. It is a startling tight and invigorating performance with a dinstinctly different string sound and a very militaristic sound timpani line. It’s a thrilling listen and demonstrates a well-focussed band delivering a showstopper of an overture. When I stop to consider that the Gurzenich played this at the end of a three-part concert I am even more impressed with their skill, dexterity and musicianship.

For sure, Prom 48 will go down as a personal favourite at the end of this season.

Prom 48 (Part One – Mahler 5) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Two – Stockhausen) on the BBC iPlayer
Prom 48 (Part Three – Schubert Songs & Beethoven Leonore Overture) on the BBC iPlayer

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