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Proms round-up

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 themes.

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 GBP3.

For more about the Proms and the schedule for the rest of the season, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/.

H.E. Elsom



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