Until November last year I had never been to the Royal Albert Hall; since, I have been there 4 times, with fifth and sixth concerts at this magnificent venue already to come before the end of September. Last Thursday was also my first attendance at the BBC Proms - I am going again next week and I'll probably do more concerts next year.
I've always enjoyed classical music although in the last few years I've developed a taste for it. I am by no means an expert or have any great passions about what should and should not constitute classical music. I am quite happy for it to encompass film scores for example and my tastes anyway lie with the more contemporary stuff. In addition my love of all things American (well most things anyway!), sparked my desire to discover more of Samuel Barber's music, one of the reasons I selected last Thursday's concert.
Barber will always be known for his searing Adagio for Strings and until about 2 years ago this was the total of my experience of his work. Then I discovered that Naxos were doing a fabulous collection of Barber's orchestral works, all for the bargain price of Â£5.99 per CD.
The man himself remains very much an enigma to me. I've only pieces of his life to go on. Apart from knowing he was an American and in my view one of the greatest American composers of his generation, the only other pieces I've gleaned about this man whose music so enchants and fascinates me, is that he washomosexuall and in later life struggling with the twin demons of drink and depression. It was only from Thursday's concert programme that I learnt how he died - cancer struck him down at the relatively young age of 70 in 1981. His music lives on though.
Barber said of his compositions that his style was that he had no style. Although I don't really get all that academic discussion of music and the arguments that he wrote in a neo-romantiscist style, what is clear is that Barber's music was quite different. Everyone will know the famous Adagio for Strings but it is very untypical of Barber's other work and doesn't really do justice to the fabulous orchestral music he produced. Thursday's concert featured the first of Barber's three Essays for Orchestra. The First Essay I find a dark and disturbing piece, imbued with fear and trembling anxiety. This is probably one of my favourite, if not favourite, pieces by Barber. I like the emotion there is in this piece and the fact that the ending feels unresolved and solemn. It is so unlike the Adagio yet it evokes in me that same feeling of despondency and sadness.
The second half of the Prom featured music by Mahler and namely the Fifth Symphony. Shamefully the reputation of this piece for me (before Thursday) rested on the fourth movement - the Adagietto. This was unforgettably used in the film Death in Venice. Although written as a love song to Mahler's wife, Alma, the Adagietto has for me always summed up agonising loss and unendinglonelinesss. It is in my view more beautiful than the aforementioned Adagio by Barber, scored simply for strings and harp, yet able to summon searing sadness and forever that image of the boat floating languidly across the lagoon in Venice...
The rest of the Fifth Symphony as the programme notes describe it, is convulsed with terror and energy. Mahler's life seemed to be shrouded in death which appears to have influenced this work and its sometimes sinister turns. It was a thrilling performance though, from the heights of joy and energetic playing to the deep loneliness of the Adagietto before a spectacularly robust and thrilling final movement.
By the end of this concert I had tears in my eyes, a huge smile on my face and a feeling of immense satisfaction at having heard such wonderful music played so beautifully. This is the attraction of classical music to me; the way it can move the heart like no other music I know.