The ABC of Music…

Enjoy your weekly dose of #classicalbuzz from Nick Breckenfield...
I ended last week with Herbert von Karajan. So I thought I’d start with him this week, in remembering the first time I saw him live: Royal Festival Hall, London – 27 May 1981. The reason why he has (again) sprung to mind is the single piece on the programme that night: Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony.

Sitting on the back row of the choir that night, under the Royal Festival Hall’s organ pipes, I was spellbound, not just by the quality of the playing and the sheer weight of orchestral sound, but also by the work. It was the first time I had heard any Bruckner live (and intriguingly my second live Bruckner was the Seventh, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Eugen Jochum, some nine months later on 8 March 1982), and I was bowled over.

Mind you we had suffered for our art. In those days (before computers, mobiles and online booking) the Royal Festival Hall opened its booking for concerts exactly one calendar month before the concert in question. On 27 April sometime before 6am, I joined the queue which was already amassing alongside the wall of the box office and waited (in relay with three friends) until the box office opened at 10am. We were lucky – we got the last four seats in the choir: £3 a ticket, which was nearly twice as much as any London orchestra (for which the choir was then £1.60). Karajan was at the time 73 and had been with the Berliner Philharmoniker for 26 years.

Subsequently, on 22 August 1998, I heard Gunter Wand perform it at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, its power so great that I was glad not to have booked any other classical concert for a week (I had missed his previous performance at the 1990 Proms, although – referring to last week’s blog – have that on DVD). And then there was Bernard Haitink’s Vienna Philharmonic Royal Festival Hall performance on 5 May 2003 (which started 45 minutes late because the instruments hadn’t arrived) and three Abbado performances – the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester at the Proms on 9 August 1993 (when he had to repeat the end of the final movement as an encore) and the pair of what turned out to be his valedictory British performances at the Royal Festival Hall in October 2013, with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

All those occasions (and other performances too) will come to mind when I take my choir seat, this time on the front row, this coming Saturday for Stanislaw Skrowazcewski’s performance of this craggy work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was clear back in January when London’s 2015/16 orchestral seasons were announced, that this was one of the highlights of the year. Skrowaczewski turned 92 on 3 October and – like Karajan, Wand, Haitink and Abbado – is steeped in Bruckner. In recent years, courtesy of the London Philharmonic, we’ve heard his Bruckner Seventh and Third (both now available on the orchestra’s own label), and the excitement about this forthcoming Fifth is palpable. Perhaps not every concert can generate such thrilling expectation, (if they did I’d be exhausted!) but I am amazed how much a live symphony orchestra can still get my blood pumping even before it’s happened.

So, that covers the “B” of my “ABC.” “A” was going to be for John Adams, in town this week to be awarded an honorary degree from the University of London at the Royal Academy of Music and to conduct the London Symphony twice, but I’ve run out of space. And “C” was just a tease, though I’m sure I’ll come back to them both.

More anon.

Nick Breckenfield

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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