Friday, July 13, 2007

First Night of the Proms (BBC2)

I don't mind Charles Hazlewood, I've met him and he's a nice bloke. So I can put down his slightly patronising irritatingness on telly events such as this to the autocue and the patronising, irritating script it's delivering him. His guests in the box are Gillian Moore, late of the London Sinfonietta and now of the South bank, and Philip Sheppard, cellist and composer. Both are intelligent, knowledgeable people, and yet in the context of a television event neither has anything interesting to say. I put this down to the inherently asinine nature of television.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra despatches Walton's "Portsmouth point" with efficiency. It's good to hear them on much better form than a couple of years ago, when their performance under Jukka-Pekka Saraste of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra was possibly the worst performance I have ever heard a professional orchestra give.

Elgar's Cello Concerto is a tricky beast. It's skewed by the influence of Jacqueline du Pre, who created the self-indulgent template that most cellists have copied since for their interpretation. Elgar is all about passionate emotion held in check, and Paul Watkins doesn't quite manage to escape the gushing influence of du Pre, although he gives a pretty fine account. I'm more disturbed by the appalling mix in the TV sound, which pushes the soloist to the top in a ludicrous and utterly unrealistic (and unmusical) manner. Halfway through I switch to Radio 3 to compare. but of course telly is showing with a delay of half an hour and Radio is already onto the interval talk. This misbalancing has the effect of robbing the final moments of all the subtlety and poignancy they should have, that I'm sure Mr Watkins gave them if you were in the hall. The audience clap wildly. Charles Hazlewood gushes. But that's what he's paid to do, of course.

Here's Nicholas Kenyon to gush a bit more. Nicholas Kenyon has run the Proms for the past decade, and has taken it from John Drummond's daring to a cosy safeness that has gone from feeling like a reconciliation to an unimaginative bland consensus.

Charlie wants to know what Nick's favourite moment is in the time he's been running it. Nick waffles on in a generalising way that says nothing. Well, no-one's ever going to say anything thoughtful or intelligent on telly, are they? Only self-congratulatory mush. Blah blah themes and anniversaries [the laziest programming devices]. Blah blah international visitors. Youth Orchestras. Christ, this is turning into something like a speech at a political party conference. Being a bit of a nerd, I can't quite get over the fact that Nick looks quite a lot like the Doctor out of Star Trek: Voyager.

Charles now talks to Paul Watkins, and an intelligent discussion threatens to break out. Here we have two intelligent musicians discussing an important piece, and it's wonderful. it's over too soon, of course, but then we have a nice little film profiling Jiri Belohlavek, who isn't given enough screen time, as he clearly has lots of interesting things to say. But overall I must give thumbs up to BBC 2 for this bit of the interval.

Now the talking heads return, and it's back to bland nonsense. Oh well. That's TV for you.

Actually, I'm being unfair. They're saying some interesting stuff about Beethoven here. But they're talking against the clock, and a conversation that should last hours is over in minutes.

Personally, I've always thought that Beethoven's 9th Symphony's opening 30 seconds are brilliant, and then it's all downhill from there. Belohlavek takes a very steady speed in the first movement, putting himself closer to Klemperer than Norrington in the speed stakes. But in sacrificing the urgency of the faster speed, he doesn't quite achieve the gravity necessary to make the slower speed work.

The second movement's more successful, with an understated quality that brings out the dance element of the music.

I was worried that the solo singers not coming on stage until this point would distract, but fortunately this proves not to be the case, and after a brief respite the orchestra moves into the slow movement, a difficult one to bring off. There's a balance between repose and movement to be struck, and thy don't quite bring that off, although there are many moments to savour.

the finale bursts in-ish. It seems curiously lacking in electricity, and the cello/bass recitatives are rather lumpen and slow for my tastes. And when the "Ode to Joy" theme emerges, it sounds curiously sleepy, which I suppose is a valid interpretation, but it seems to lack the innocence that I want to hear at that point. Maybe that's something impossible to achieve after all these years.

Once the singers come in, of course, it's all about joy and humanity coming together, and critical comment is redundant, because how can you not respond to such a sentiment? It is music that stands beyond any reasonable comment.

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