Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Day 1: Mahler

"The symphony is a world; it must contain everything." - Gustav Mahler

Day One started, in retrospect, with a mistake. Perhaps fired by some misplaced conviction that freedom from the distraction of work somehow imbues the body with supernatural powers, I decided, moments after waking, to go for a run - my first in around six months, maybe longer.

Running has long been an unexplained obsession of mine, perhaps because it's one of the most universal of athletic past-times. Football may personify the nation - in salubrious as well as celebratory ways - but even for a quick kick-about you need, ideally, a ball and goal posts. Running only requires legs and a destination. Of course, you can pepper the pastime with a variety of technological distractions, such as GPS watches and heart-rate monitors and iPhone apps and bottles of super-water that promise the earth, or at least five seconds off your personal best. But strip away the accoutrements and it's just you and the road, and it's your mental as well as physical strength that will keep your feet pounding.

I sorely lacked those strengths yesterday morning, and puffed from Surbiton Station to Kingston John Lewis (barely two miles) with all the grace and form of a wheezing rhino. But it was still a victory. Jogging down Victoria Road, I passed tens of commuters walking sleepily to their trains, clutching coffee cups or grunting into smartphones, and just for a few moments, running away from civilisation and onto the beautiful stretch of the Thames that separated me from my goal, I felt my rash decision vindicated ten times over.

My legs, stiff and sore this morning, have since forced me to question that decision again!

That run to Kingston was just one of three I made that day, running a number of dull but important errands. On my final trip I finally signed up for a membership to the leisure centre - my induction is Wednesday. The receptionist curtly asked me what time I wanted to present myself for gym indoctrination (or was it induction…?) and to my great surprise my mouth instantly responded "9am, Wednesday", presumably without any prior consultation with my brain. Clearly my body is conditioned to early mornings - perhaps I need to explain to it the concept of freedom.

In the evening, rushing from Kingston to South Kensington, and polishing off The End of the Affair on the journey, I met with my friend Peter, with whom I used to play in an amateurish but terrifically satisfying piano trio. We had tickets to the BBC Prom that evening, a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, with the wonderful Sir Roger Norrington wielding the baton. Mahler's Ninth has long been a favourite of mine, a monumental work written in a hut in the Dolomites, during a period of personal self-exile and estrangement triggered by the death of the composer's daughter and the diagnosis of a heart condition that put paid to his horrifically intense schedule of conducting and touring.

I don't intend to use this post to delve into a critical analysis of the work - innumerable writers have taken care of that for me - but in that seventy minutes of music, Mahler has distilled a powerful love of life with a submission to the inevitability of death and decay. I would urge you all to find the numerous recordings of the symphony on Spotify and experience it for yourself. The performance itself was of course amazing - maybe the tempi were a little fast for the outer, slower movements - but unfortunately the usual Prom plague of coughing, hacking, spluttering and sneezing was present and incorrect. I hate the snobbishness and presumed exclusivity of classical music as much as anybody, and the Proms do a great deal to open the borders to the masses who may have never heard a note of Mahler or Mendelssohn before, but music in all its forms requires respect and attention. Norrington conducted the beautiful Elegy by Edward Elgar as an encore to yesterday's concert, but nothing ruins a memorial to the dead more than a contrasting symphony of random throat noises emanating from the Dress Circle.

Tomorrow I visit the dentist. From the sublime to the ridiculous!

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