The First BBC Prom
Well, here we are, with the inevitable promotional hype about these Proms-as-never-before. ‘Nothing stops this great festival’ trumpets the presenter, before inviting members of the unseen audience to drop in to the “listen party” for those who want to get in the mood with fancy paper hats. Let’s keep things in proportion: since Radio 3 has been broadcasting notable archive performances wall-to-wall for the past three months, it’s hardly an earth-shattering change for them to put on six more weeks of such things under the Proms logo. It’s just more of the same.
But there is one element of newness. The first item on the agenda, Ian Farrington’s Beethoveniana, is a Proms commission getting its world premiere delivered by 323 players of a Grand Virtual Orchestra, each of whom is performing in domestic isolation. The idea is to create a mash-up of all Beethoven’s symphonies to be condensed to nine minutes, with the Ode to Joy as its keynote, albeit with a new, more topical text.
Actually this is not a new idea. The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has already created such a thing, with striking success: his high-spirited reduction included elements of jazz and showbiz as well as the US national anthem, but it retained respect for the originals, and had its own convincing structure. The same can’t be said, alas, about Farrington’s effort, in which snatches of Beethoven’s music are submerged in a garrulous swirl of sub-folk, sub-pop fairground stuff. The natural home for this must be Room 101.
After which Igor Levit’s 2017 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 comes as a blessed relief: the fire, passion, and control of his performance is exemplary. Then comes Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, a work which won instant notoriety, leading allegedly to “thousands” of listeners’ complaints after its Last Prom premiere in 1995. A composition for saxophone, drums, and orchestra, in which its soloist-dedicatee John Harle pursued a wandering line through a thicket of instrumental sounds, it comes over 25 years later with wonderful freshness. As for the alleged avalanche of complaints, the recording provides its own riposte: it was cheered to the rafters. It’s exhilarating to re-encounter a work of such joyful and uncompromising modernism.
The final work is Mahler’s Symphony No 3, played by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado’s baton in 2007, with mezzo Anna Larson bringing grave beauty to the solo part. This epic recording of this massive work is simply magnificent.
Yesterday Alan Davey, controller of Radio 3, made some telling points in a short article in the Evening Standard. He quoted the findings of a study made by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which revealed that, although Covid has prevented live performances, it has also persuaded many more people to listen to classical music in their enforced isolation. And his justification for going ahead in September with two weeks of live audience-less Proms is also worth quoting: “We’ll be doing it for the artists desperate to play, and for audiences starved of live cultural events.” Bravo.