Royal Albert Hall
07/17/1999 - till 10 August
The Proms is still unique in the musical world, a two-month long festival
of daily world-class concerts, all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.
Originally summer pops, the concerts have been sponsored by the BBC since
1928. They are now the flagship of the BBC's classical music production as
well as a showcase for the corporation's own orchestras and choirs.
The traditional programming of the 1960s and 1970s, with English and
Viennese nights, was always partly a front for new music. (Your
correspondant has a probably hallucinatory memory of a late-night Pink
Floyd concert in the Brompton oratory in about 1972.) But in recent years,
particularly under the directorship of Nicholas Keynon, there have been
bold themes up front, and less familiar composers and works, and
commissions, have been presented in attractive formats. Last year, in a
season that some old hands claim was the best ever, the theme of power and
politics found room for Rameau's Zoroastre, the unperformed final
part of Weill's Der Weg der Verheissung, and Henri Dutilleux's
The shadows of Time.
This season tries to follow a similar pattern. The main themes are the
ascent of man and the end of time, both suitable for millenial tie-ins.
Also related is the theme of "late or last" works. The features composers
are Richard Strauss, Carl Nielsen, Francis Poulenc and Duke Ellington. Of
course, almost anything could be justified by this assortment, and no set
of ideas has yet emerged as forcefully as last year.
At the same time, the programme this year goes some way to meet more
traditionally minded audiences, if not with pops then with good
performances of mainstream (and topical) works, as well as with
unambiguously popular programmes at 8.00 on Saturdays. The sparsely
attended Tippett first night was followed by a sold out programme of Haydn
and Mozart, with Cecilia Bartoli and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concertus
Musicus, Vienna. Bartoli sang her greatest hits -- Haydn's Scena di
Berenice, "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito, the Genio's
aria from Haydn's Orfeo -- engagingly, but the concert was well
balanced in an old-fashioned way, completed with exhilarating performances
of Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 87 and 86.
A similarly sold-out programme of film music on the Saturday 31 July was
less rewarding. Richard Attenborough read an anecote-rich but badly edited
commentary which didn't provide any real context for the selections (though
the printed programme was more helpful in some cases). Korngold's Sea
Hawk overture was a well-made concert piece that brough back jolly
memories of the film, and Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho ran an
icy finger down the spine even without the associated manipulative images.
George Fenton conducted a stirring performance of his music for Cry
Freedom, but it was the singers and the resonance of the music that
raised the cheer. The audience was almost as enthusiastic about the
deliberately banal arrangement of "Colonel Bogey" from Bridge over the
river Kwai. Selections from Maurice Jarre's music for Dr Zhivago
and Lawrence of Arabia offered an irritating repetition of familiar
Other crowd-pleasing works have been more worthwhile. Ralph Kirschbaum gave
a mellow performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic
under Yan Pascal Tortelier on 21 July. Trevor Pinnock and the English
Consort on 8 August showed what period instruments can do for Mozart's
Requiem, far more austere than usual and frighteningly lucid about
the terrors of the last day as well as about the hope of mercy.
But Rameau's Boreades, in a bright performance by Simon Rattle and
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on 19 July, was packed and
appreciated, as was a superb programme on 10 August of Ives and Nancarrow,
with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Thomas Adès,
followed by the songs from Bernstein's (very minor) 1952 musical, conducted
by Rattle. Only Rattle could control a conga line of singers and audience
around the arena, as he did for the encore.
Somehow the featured composers Poulenc and Nielsen kept audiences away, in
spite of audience-friendly "greatest hits" programmes. Neeme Järvi
conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorus and Finchley
Children's Music Group in a delightful and moving performance of Nielsen's
Springtime on Funen, a pleasant evocation of spring days in the
country with a gently Calvinist reminder of the presence of death in the
background. Nielsen's Aladdin suite also got a lively performance. HK
Gruber's Trumpet Concerto, receiving its world première in the same
concert, was harder going but dramatic and striking, and often amusing.
Hakan Hardenberger used a collection of mutes on the table beside him like
a magician, and also played a cow horn. On 9 August, Annick Massis gave a
bravura performance of arias by Bizet and Thomas to a half empty hall in a
concert that also included Poulenc's trademark Les Biches. And, in
spite of a near sell-out run for the ENO production earlier this year, a
fine performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites by Opéra
National du Rhin on 4 August was sparsely attended.
Perhaps Proms audiences simply don't like twentieth-century, let alone
twenty-first century, music. Most of them missed, on 22 July, Boulez'
obsessive Notations I-IV, Ravel's Schéhérezade, sung
lushly and mysteriously by Jean Rigby, and Messaien's Éclairs sur
l'au-del´, given a blissful performance by Andrew Davis and the
BBC Symphony Orchestra. And Oliver Knussen conducted the BBC Symphony
Orchestra in his own Horn Concerto and the London premiére of Magnus
Lindberg's Aura in front of a half-empty house on 25 July, in spite
of some reassuringly programmatic Sibelius and Stravinsky on the programme.
Perhaps these programmes were justified by a few people who turned up for
these unpopular Proms who would not have gone to the Barbican for the same
music. But perhaps the mission of the Proms isn't either simply to educate
or simply to entertain. With very few lapses, this season makes available
superb performances of well programmed works that you might not hear
anywhere else in London, as well as fine performances of mainstream one. It
is simply the best music festival in the world. And you can get in for
For more about the Proms and the schedule for the rest of the season, see