Wednesday, 23 July 2008

In Praise of the iPlayer and a little Peeve . . .

Generally I only listen to the Beeb on my computer(s) under protest, but I had noticed that the sound quality of the BBC iPlayer (are they paying royalties to Steve Jobs?) is considerably in advance of Windows Media or RealPlayer. I thought, therefore. I ought to have a quick listen to one of the repeat Proms broadcasts via the website.

Unfairly, but in my erstwhile mean hi-fi reviewer mood, I picked the first Prom's Messaien on the Albert Hall organ (a very stiff test for any audio setup) and listened through the Sennheiser cans I use for audio editing hooked up to my Mac laptop. Oh, and yes, I have heard the organ live there since it was rebuilt, so I know what it's supposed to sound like.

It didn't do a bad job at all; there's obvious muddle in the treble and midrange when the score gets even remotely complex, and while the bass end sounds impressively solid, its depth is an illusion, though a very convincing and persuasive one. The compression, 'flattening' and chopped off treble and bass registers are pretty obvious if you compare it to 'real' hi-fi, but given that the bitrate is less than the MP3's many people load onto their iPods, it does give a good overall impression. Just don't look for subtleties of interpretation or fine nuances of instrumental texture.

Still, despite myself, I'm impressed. And since many people around the world often can't hear a Prom concert they'd like to on FM, or sometimes at all, because the local broadcaster doesn't relay it or buy the recording, there are a lot of music lovers for whom this is a godsend. And it's way, way superior to listening on AM or SW, the way I've sometimes had to do in the past when I've not been in London. The BBC techies deserve to get as many compliments as we can muster for that, I think.

All the same, if you can listen to any concert on FM and through serious hi-fi, even if it's only a handful, do. It's not the same as being in the RAH, but as a general rule the BBC's engineers take a lot of care and put a lot of hard work in to get as near as they can to the real thing.

(On the other hand, the Prom site  Interactive editors don't. Deserve any compliments. I know I said you might find me at odds with some other reviewers, but I'm at odds with them, by the looks of it. They're ignoring me. So my professional pride is hurt.)

I just made the mistake of glancing at the Proms Message Board. If you would like to be reassured that classical music is an elitist pursuit of the middle classes and should have been encased in amber around  1850, and be fenced off from unworthy interlopers, have a read of what they are saying about Roger Norrington, or the Folk afternoon. It doesn't half make me angry. If I'd come across that sort of thing when I was 11 and just discovering classical music, which none of my working class family had any interest in, I'd have a run a mile from it and never have had the years of pleasure I have had out of it and would like a lot of other people to have, too.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Authentic Avant-garde Elgar

Or, Roger Norrington's Elgar 1 on Tuesday Night, about which I will wax wildly enthusiastic in a day or two when I've managed to catch up a bit.  For the first time, I grasped what Hans Richter meant, and I could believe Elgar really was in the avant-garde at the time.

The first movement was quite Mahlerian; which put off a French friend of mine who was listening with me and who I've been hopelessly, but determinedly, trying to convert to Mahler for 20 years. And there was a surprisingly robust pastoral element quite removed from the usual Malvern hills imagery you get. (I've been there, and to someone brought up in the Pennines like me, they're not hills, just pimples on the landscape, and molehills is somehow what so often come to mind in some Elgar 1's.) I'll gloss over my unreconstructed friend's snorted conviction that she could even  hear "gambolling ducks", but she's of the 'cowpat composer' persuasion and was being rather vehement about it, and I misheard it as "gambling". Norrington's Elgar was in some ways certainly a gamble, far more than a gambol, and I wish I'd gone to the RAH to hear it live.

A few years ago at lunch in Abbey Road between recording sessions, the principal horn of  the LSO told me he'd just bought a French Horn made in 1901, so he was 'all ready for the authentic Elgar revival'. Stupid of us to laugh (I thought he was being a bit sarky, but didn't dare say too much about my authentic instruments enthusiasm, because it was a comment of mine that had led to his crack in the first place, so I laughed, a bit hollowly, as well) after Tuesday night's Prom . . .Of course, what I should have pushed maybe was the idea of 'authentic performance' which Norrington excels at now.

Roger Norrington's interview can be heard from this page. Well worth it! (And he says some things I never dared write, however fervently I thought them. But then, I'm only a dilettante amateur.)

It is odd how a little flippant (but delightfully played) 'lollipop' like tonight's encore can feel like a bit of a letdown at home when you feel like quietly savouring the recollection of the performances (and the Haydn Cello concerto was superb, too) whereas in the hall, live, it's often a welcome release from the tension of concentrating so hard for the previous 50 minutes or more which Prommers are noted for. I wonder why that is?

(R3 relay) Prom 7: Elgar Symphony No 1

Applause, applause!

Since I've been a strong fan of the 'authentic instrument revival' from way back, it seems I have to say sorry about my complaint about Proms audiences applauding between every movement. Listening to the interval interview with Roger Norrington (highly diverting and recommended, by the way, especially about 'baked beans'  conducting, 'acoustic central heating' and 'wobbling stuff') I discovered people applauded each movement a century ago, and it was only later someone commented on 'the strange new habit of not applauding between movements.' Obviously, I missed  the 'authentic applause revival' somehow, so I now shamefacedly accept I was wrong . . .

Monday, 21 July 2008

Making a bit of a mess of Messaien?

Something went awry on Monday night. Whether it was the FM transmitter I get my transmission from or the R3 engineers at the RAH, I don't know.

I'd really been looking forward to hearing that organ again, but in the thirty seconds of silence before it started, there was a shocking amount of hiss. There's always some microphone hiss comes through on live Proms transmissions, but after the first few bars it also sounded as though it was being miked from way back over the Prommers at the back of the Arena and a single stereo pair at that or just from those that are meant to catch the audience applause.

This sounded like a bad technical blunder, but I'll see what the repeat recording sounds like. Until then, I can't offer a review, it wouldn't be fair. Time was when there were BBC techs I could have talked to about that, but those days, thanks to John Birt, are long gone, and there's no point in talking to a PR person in the Secretariat who can't tell the difference between a podcast and serious audio . . .

It must have been some bizarre reception fault, for when I listened to the repeat, it wasn't as bad as that, though the organ did sound disappointingly flat. I wondered if the engineers had decided to tame it a little bit after the first time. But I won't review that performance, because I found it really a little too prissily academic and, well, flat.

Prom 1: Festivity and a Feisty Organ

Just a few passing comments, on this one, since I wasn’t particularly keen on the performers. Or the conductor, to be honest. He might be a welcome relief after Slatkin (for whom I invented my own nickname involving the substitution of a vowel but which I daren’t write here for fear of being sued; a truly dreadful spell, that) but for me, he lacks sympathy with a lot of the BBC SO’s repertoire. But I like Richard Stauss.

The Festliches Praeludium was grand. Large. But, for once, not bulky or sounding overstuffed like an old feather mattress. And the organ was even grander. Since it was refurbished, it sounds even prouder and more imperious than the Albert Memorial on the other side of the road to the Albert Hall looks since its refurbishment, and that’s saying something. Jiri Belohlavek was apparently worried it might sound too big: he was right, but its glorious bigness didn’t exactly do the piece any harm, just made it grandiosely celebratory, as it ought to be.

Belohlavek, perhaps, was too in thrall to the idea of the sheer size of the Strauss orchestra; when it came to the smaller scale of the Mozart Oboe Concerto. The first movement was decidedly perfunctory, too fast and casual with no subtlety at all, yet under other conductors the BBC SO is perfectly capable of sounding like a highly skilled and delicate chamber ensemble. Just not this first night. Somebody was out of sympathy, and to be honest, Nicholas Daniel’s cadenza was pretty but really rather trivial, and, to my mind though beautifully played, not very appropriate, for all Petroc Trelawny’s boosting of its natural origins and birdsong in his introduction. I’ve always thought of Mozart as a Townie, anyway, rather than a country boy. The last movement., as you might have expected, was rushed to a close.

And the Four Last Songs? Thanks to the original soloist being unable to appear, the performance had all the signs of having been perfunctorily re-rehearsed some time in the morning (one of the curses of the BBC SO’s schedule when it appears at the Proms, and one that too often leads to somewhat clumsy performances except under a small handful of supremely talented conductors—Gerghiev for one. This was a long programme, too, which always makes me suspicious: I suspect a hurried briefing, a few bars played over and pencilled notes on the players’ scores.) The orchestral conducting was simply out of sympathy with Christine Brewer’s voice. And, really, not subtle enough or shaded well enough. It plucked more at my Achilles tendons than my heartstrings. We’ll draw a veil (or maybe even seven) over that.

What I really wanted to hear was the Messaien, and that superb organ again. This birth, the way it sounded, virgin or not was not an easy birth. It is full of screaming, sweating and agonising heaves, or, if you don’t like my similes here, an incredible rending of temple curtains but with a glorious blazing blinding extended daybreak of glaring Meditteranean sunshine instead of a storm, ending with, not exhaustion, but sheer unbelievable drawn-out ecstasy of a new infant birth. I’ve never really heard the organ at Notre Dame, but this is what the Albert Hall organ was created for. Glorious.

Me, I’m not terribly sympathetic to Elliott Carter. Catenaire was not for me. Or anyone who isn’t amused by an out of control pianola with the handle wound round fast by a maniac. Strangely, a very strong smell of embrocation suffused my flat through its open windows as soon as it ended. The mad handle-winder must have sprained his wrist, and a whiff of the soothing ointment wafted over all the way from the Albert Hall . . .

I’ve noticed over the last few years that the Prom audience, or at least a sizeable part of it, seems to have reverted to an older practice of applauding a cadenza, an individual movement or each song of a cycle . .I wish they wouldn’t. It’s something that should only be done when you are really transported, and that ought to mean rarely. It’s terribly distracting when you are trying to keep the whole piece in mind during the performance whether you’re at home or actually in the Albert Hall. And I just don’t know how it came to be.

(R3 Repeat) Strauss, Festliches Praludium; Mozart Oboe Concerto; Messaien, La Nativite du Seigneur-Dieu parmi nous; Elliot Carter, Catenaires for Solo Piano