Making it all seem so easy

21 Jul

As I write, it’s just over two hours since the applause died away following the LSO’s performance of Mahler 9, conducted by Bernard Haitink, at the Proms. My natural inclination would always have been to let my thoughts simmer for a few days before pronouncing on the subject, but I have to accept that the world is changing.  I tweeted before the concert that if it was as good as I hoped it would be, I’d be in no fit state to tweet at the end of it: in fact, I managed to make a brief comment about 30 minutes afterwards, albeit only to say that 140 characters was insufficient to summarise my feelings, and I’d have to do it here.

In a way, I’m fascinated to find that although my general opinion of the concert hasn’t changed, my explanation for how I feel and why I feel that way has solidified greatly in the past 90 minutes – so much so that if I had been able to put things in writing back then, the result would have been distinctly unsatisfactory. Therefore, I’m pleased to have been able to restrain myself for at least this long.

The first thing to say is that it was a masterful performance, played with exemplary skill by a wonderful orchestra. Haitink correctly gave the first horn and first trumpet a bow at the end, as well as the woodwind principals; I would also have picked out Sharon Williams, the piccolo player, who proved beyond doubt that a piccolo can be in tune! The strings remind me of how the Berlin Phil used to sound twenty years ago under Abbado (and how they used to look: their mobility makes them seem distictly un-British!). Watching the violins in a particular section of the final movement, I could see that each note, however short, seemed to require a whole bow movement, creating a wonderful smooth, rich sound.

The outer movements were faultless – perfectly paced, movingly played. As he turned to the last page of the score, Haitink, who had recently had a back operation and was therefore conducting from a stool, stood up – at that moment, I couldn’t hold back a tear. It was amazing how clearly the structure of the music came through: maybe it was the careful use (not overuse) of rubato to highlight the junction points in the music, maybe it was the precision of the balance between the instruments, never letting the power of the symphony orchestra mask the melodic detail.I don’t think I’ve ever been as aware before of how the short timpani fanfare in the first movement fits harmonically with what’s going on around it.

My problems, such as they are, are with the middle movements, in particular, the third. I had a peculiar feeling they just weren’t quite fast enough. And yet, on reflection, it wasn’t the speed that troubled me (except in the final bars of the Burleske, where the lack of an obvious accelerando, whether specified in the score or not, robbed the climax of some of its excitement). No, what troubled me was something so pretentious you might decide to stop reading my tedious screeds altogether in disgust…

The orchestra were too good.

Hang on, dear reader; let me explain before you shoot off to some more sensible webpage elsewhere. What I missed was a feeling of danger – a feeling that the players were being forced to stretch their abilities to the limit to achieve the near-impossible. Perhaps that’s the sort of feeling I get playing in much more modest orchestras myself, where my fellow musicians and I are aspiring to reach a level  beyond what we’re really capable of. Now I realise this is stupid: you can’t really complain when an orchestra is made up of virtuosi who can take virtually anything in their stride – they’re just bringing the score to life as precisely and accurately as it’s humanly possible to do. I reckon this is a criticism only an amateur musician like myself would make: it’s a form of envy – how dare they make it seem so easy? I just need a couple of days to get over it, and I’ll be fine.


I can’t let the day go by without a comment on the test match. After all, seeing England beat Australia at HQ is something I’ve never had an opportunity to see in my lifetime. I hope a lot of one-day cricket lovers saw the game, and in particular, I hope they can now see why the five-day game is so superior.

Day one – opening stand 195 – England well on top. By the end of the day, with six wickets down, the Australians had fought back to leave a situation much like the first test, where England had to mount a phenomenal rearguard action to save the game.

Day two – thanks to an excellent 10th wicket stand, England reach a respectable but modest total, less even than their first innings score at Cardiff, and we know how that turned out. Then the England bowlers do their stuff, reducing the Aussies to less than 200 for 8 wickets down – that’s the same bowling side (one change notwithstanding) that only managed to take 5 wickets in the entire match in Cardiff – what were the odds on that?.

Day three – obviously, if we bowl them out quickly, we’ll make them follow-on. Wrong. For whatever reason, Strauss decides that England will bat again. This could be a disaster: remember the first test in the West Indies only five months ago: second innings, England bowled out for 51, leaving WI a relatively easily achievable target. Seems to be going that way – the openers both dismissed cheaply, nos. 3 and 4 batting like scared rabbits. Then it all turns round again – Matt Pryor shows them how to bat. The lead stretches to over 500, but the light’s too bad to put the Aussies in again – indeed, it’s soon too bad to continue at all.

Day four – logic says bat on to make the game safe, but no, Strauss puts the Aussies straight in to bat. Target 522: greater than has ever been achieved before, but you can never say never. Before long, the decision seems the right one – Australia reduced to 128 for 5, staring defeat in the face. Clarke and Haddin are together at the crease. They ride their luck, prod and push the singles and slowly start building a partnership – 50, 100, 150… can England ever take another wicket? By the close, the target is barely more than 200 runs away.

Day five – if the Australian batsmen can just chip away slowly, they’ve got all the time in the world to win the game. Enter Andrew Flintoff, playing his final test at Lord’s. 90 minutes of excitement later and it’s all over. Flintoff has 5 wickets to his name and England are one up.

After Cardiff, I complained to one of my friends that back-to-back tests have the enormous drawback that you can’t grow back enough nails between games. It’s enough to make me take up gum chewing. And as for Flintoff, there’s only one thing to ask: how does he make it all seem so easy?

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Posted by on 21 July 2009 in Cricket, Music


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