Curious programming choices at the Proms
The Proms is rather an odd beast. While the ‘greatest musical festival in the world’ sobriquet is not one I would choose to challenge, some of the programming decisions can provide fertile ground for debate. When this season’s programme was released in April, reviews editor Andrew Mellor criticised the omission of interesting orchestras ‘who would rise to the occasion and offer something different’ as well as aspects of the programming.
I want to question the decision to include this year a lot of semi-staged or unstaged opera, but would like first to look at the high-profile ‘event’ of this season’s Proms – the five Beethoven (and Boulez) concerts over eight days from Daniel Barenboim and his young ‘peace’ orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan, whose leader is his own son. There’s certainly been a lot of brouhaha about these concerts – the Radio 3 presenter has been gushing.
And, before the ‘but’, let me endorse wholeheartedly the achievement of this young orchestra (with its wholly committed founder conductor) in showing how constructively and harmoniously young Arabs and Israelis can work and play together given half a chance to start with. Some of that will be to do with the magnetism and overwhelming charisma of the man himself, but on a purely musical level, while the West-Eastern Divan is a good, enthusiastic ensemble, its performances are not the last word in Beethoven and so far, from attending one concert in the hall and listening to two on Radio 3, I have not experienced extraordinary revelations. I would sooner turn to Chailly’s recent recording of the symphonies with the wonderful Gewandhausorchester, or Carlos Kleiber’s (truly revelatory) recording of the greatest symphony of them all, Beethoven’s Seventh, which gave me new insights into the work which (in Toscanini’s NBC recording) was my first childhood musical memory. I doubt whether the West-Eastern Divan will add some new startling perspective tonight, much though I am looking forward to he concert.
But I have another issue with this cycle. Part of the idea of these concerts was to let us experience Beethoven’s development as a symphonist – so why could we not have been given the concerts in sequence? We are being given 1 and 2, followed by 4 and 3, 6 and 5, 8 and 7 and then 9. If, from a programming perspective, it was felt necessary to have the big odd-number symphonies at the end of each concert, why not have given 1, 2 and the Eroica at the first concert (the 45-minute Boulez work could have been rescheduled), followed by 4 and 5, 6 and 7, and then 8 and 9. That way one could truly follow Beethoven’s development.
In the middle of the Beethoven cycle, we were treated to a five-and-a-half hour concert performance of Berlioz’s massive Les Troyens – one of the several of this season’s operas. I was blown away by this at Covent Garden a month ago but concerned that the production seemed to fall away in the latter stages. Experiencing the work in the very different surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall was odd. At Covent Garden, the Fall of Troy had been overwhelming, Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra thrilling vocally and dominating proceedings on stage. Here, in an elegant green evening gown, Antonacci was less dominant, vocally a little more subdued, and I missed the dramatic sets. By contrast, the under-produced Trojans at Carthage benefited from some vivid facial acting at the Prom and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Dido was allowed to develop without hindrance from the production. A powerful portrayal, by the way.
By the end I didn’t mind that the staging was missing: the chorus was still marvellous and there were particular pleasures of which I had been less aware in the opera house. I would single out Hanna Hipp, as Dido’s sister Anna, who contributed to a quite gorgeous Act 3 duet with Westbroek and then shone again in her duet with Brindley Sherratt’s deep, sonorous Narbal. There are lovely depths also to Hipp’s voice and she was a revelation.
Bryan Hymel’s Aeneas is not being given sufficient credit. He doesn’t have Jonas Kaufmann’s reputation but he is much more than an adequate stand-in and a worthy hero in his own right, with some quite thrilling singing, reminiscent, as I noted at Covent Garden, of Jon Vickers, who was a wonderful Aeneas himself.
Off-stage trumpeters found it difficult to sync with the rest of the orchestra here, but Antonio Pappano is an engaging conductor who was never going to allow this Troyens to be less than another fabulous experience. The Proms were the richer for the experience – but by the end of the season we may feel that, with opera in the concert hall, one can have too much of a good thing.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also finds time to sing in two choirs and is Production Editor of Gramophone.