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The last night of my proms


Through the summer I’ve been presenting for BBC4 (the Beeb’s new digital arts channel) from the Proms – the greatest music festival in the World. What an honour. When I first came to England after Berlin, I would go to the Albert Hall through the summery park and think: how cool would it be, to be working here. And 4 years later here I am – cycling through the afternoon up past the Albert Memorial, tying up my bike and strolling into the Door 11 for a sound check. Sometimes the Czech National Orchestra will be changing out of their trousers in the corridor, or Harrison Birtwhistle will be sitting all portly and regal in the Arena during the run through of his new piece. Sometimes Graham Vick will be rehearsing members of the public for their climactic intervention in Britten’s Curlew River. Sometimes Simon Rattle will be marching politely past the Prommers queuing up to see him perform with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

74 concerts on 58 consecutive nights. No one else could do it. Bless the BBC for that alone. I could hardly believe – having been away for 4 weeks filming Cash – that the whole thing had continued every night in my absence. It’s such a mammoth thing.

But it struck me during this last week of filming, when I’ve been feeling rather tired and irritable, that music is so much related to the state of mind of the listener. I have huge admiration for some of my colleagues – like Charles Hazlewood, Ian Burnside, Fiona Maddox, Tom Service – who were able to speak dispassionately about such an incredible wide rage of composers and performers. I feel completely at the mercy of my subjective response to these things.

For example, no amount of Proms literature will win me over to Dvorak – despite him being one of the featured composers this season. Beautiful and robust as the “New World” is, it doesn’t touch me or interest me in the way much moderm music does…. And when you’re tired and irritable, have too much on your plate and didn’t get a chance to meditate before the filming, Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is just the last thing you want to be listening to. I’ve never much warmed to Bartok. Is that because I’ve always been hungry or tired when I listened? Or is there something intrinsically un-Alistair in that spikey Hungarian’s language?

But yesterday evening – my last night’s presenting at this year’s Proms – I was lifted out of the membrane of Self by the music I heard. It may have been a trip to the gym, a healthy dinner and a long meditation in the Park, that made me so receptive, but Les Arts Florissants’ performance of Charpentier’s Requiem (Messe pour les trépassés) was my favorite concert this year.

It’s a French Baroque setting of the Requiem prose with a Motet based on the Book of Job mixed in. And musically it’s not exceptionally different from works by Charpentier’s contemporaries Lully, Delalande or Marais. But the performance that evening was spectacular. The unusual playing style of Les Arts Florissant band struck me: early music instruments played in an authentic style, which requires a lot more flamboyance in the playing to compensate for the weaker sound-production of the instruments. This means the ensemble wave and flourish in a much more individualistic way than your classic modern orchestra. They were like a multi-limbed anemone swirling and beating in the musical ether.

The chorus was also superb, maintaining exquisite intonation and acuteness throughout a long stretch of time – the mass lasts for about an hour. And from the chorus, in a constant dance of repositioning, members would step forward to become various combinations of soloists. The incredible high tenor of Paul Agnew and the more dramatic tenors of Topi Lehtipuu and Jeffrey Thompson really reached out through the vast space of the Hall and effected me almost viscerally. I had several bouts of that all-over-body shiver I get when rapt in music.

And this was what moved me so much. Despite the large architectural scale of the work and the building, the Mass was extraordinarily poignant and human. Far from being removed – it seemed that individuals were stepping forward to utter very heartfelt, but universal anxieties about what happens after death, about why we suffer.

Remember how these masses were first perfomed. There was incredible and sometimes macarbre attention given to Requiem obsequies. The cathedrals would be decked in black crepe, real skeletons would be draped over tombs, the space would be choking with incense and for days on end prayers would have been intoned by paid mourners. The sudden arrival of such exquisite music would have been dramatic and would have really spoken out through the gloomy air to the congregation sitting there contemplating their own mortality.

There was the most exquisite moment (in amongst many exquisite moments) when the small trio of soloists are singing against the main chorus in the Requiem Motet. “Miseremini mei,” they sing:

Have Pity on me I pray you my friends For the hand of God hath touched me.

This declaration of pain and the request for solidarity seemed so poignant, set as it is in the middle of work which articulates grief for the departed. In all moments of life, we as humans can suffer irrationally , and we can still ask for comfort from one another. This sense of real-existing communion is what thrills me about live performance. There was a triangle between the performers in the Hall, the music of the long-dead Charpentier and the throngs of silent audience sat listening. And while I know that I could listen to a recording of Charpentier’s work at home with my mind elsewhere and not feel a flutter in my heart, when all factors came into place it seemed like I was having my perfect Prom after all…

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