Saturday, 2 August 2008

Storms, teacups, vodka and moments of enlightenment

Didn’t Roger Norrington start a storm? And all because he took the traditionalists’ vibrato away, hid it under the underwear in the bottom drawer and said maybe they oughtn’t to play with it anymore . . .

What some people seem to have forgotten, or would like to ignore, is that he, John Eliot Gardiner, and latterly Valery Gerghiev and Simon Rattle, have been coming along to the Proms for years now to challenge old fossilised ways of thinking about Classical music. And, because Proms audiences have proved extraordinarily receptive and even adventurous (albeit sometimes with a little prodding and pushing and now and then they can be a bit slow on the uptake) they often challenge their orchestras and the critics more than the prommers.

I remember going to ‘Early Music’ proms where the Albert Hall was barely a quarter full, if that, and we were all asked to huddle together in the posh seats so we looked like an audience instead of a random scattering of lost souls. Now they can put on early masses that are utterly esoteric, and Josquin, Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Handel are staples: and it’s packed out. And conversely, Boulez can now be just a little boring and dated and unchallenging . . .

I vividly remember the first ‘authentic’ Norrington Beethoven I heard there, in a hall that was only just half full. The concentration after the first few bars was intense, because we knew we were hearing something with almost as fresh untutored an ear as those who heard the first performance must have done. And we heard instrumental textures and interplay of themes we had never grasped quite so clearly before.

It dissipated any scepticism anyone except the most entrenched classical neanderthals had about ‘authentic’ Beethoven; and I admit that I had been one, until then, who had felt that the authentic revival really should stop around 17-something . . .

Gerghiev has done that to us with Prokofiev; even though his own Rotterdam orchestra admitted it was at a loss to grasp what he was up to, and were bemused by the prommers’ intensely silent concentration followed by an outburst of raucous applause and stamping. Just as, after that first Beethoven, any radio listener would have believed the Albert Hall was as packed tight as the black hole of Calcutta.

And in 2004, Simon Rattle stretched the Berlin there into the most extraordinary Beethoven 9, with a first movement played—and how sensible and obvious it seemed in context afterwards—as though it was by Haydn. And continued it into an orchestral battle between Sturm und Drang and Pure Romanticism that almost belonged a century later. In that one performance we grasped wholly, stunningly, and incontrovertibly the great arch Beethoven forms over the development of the symphony.

So, treasure that Norrington Elgar and forget the controversy, because that was one of those epiphanies that means I will forever think of a composer differently. As though, like Hans Richter, I had come across it for the first, unplayed, time.

And I don’t know that you will regularly get that experience, and know it is shared and understood by so many people, anywhere else but in a Proms season when it used to be something you might only be able to experience a few times in a lifetime. And a great deal more expensively.

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