Consequent upon my ever-growing interest in classical music I have been listening to and watching more of the Proms this year than ever before. And because it has been Mahler’s anniversary year, 2010 has been a particularly good year for me to do so. Having said which, the BBC’s rather bizarre broadcasting practices have been something of an annoyance. On television they have generally broadcast a live Prom on Thursday, a recorded Prom on Friday – both on BBC4 – and on Saturday a mixture of the two on BBC2. Now, obviously, if they are broadcasting a recorded Prom, then you are unable to listen to the live Prom which, as they all are, is being broadcast on Radio 3. This is very irritating if you happen to want to catch both of them. The radio repeats are also broadcast at odd times. Altogether the system lacks any consistency and I am sure it must be off-putting.
But, leaving on one side the quirks of BBC scheduling, I would remark that watching an orchestral work on television is something which I find demands considerable concentration; more so than listening on the radio. Now there are obviously advantages to watching. A charismatic conductor is wonderful to behold up close, and for a musical ignoramus like me it is good to be able to identify sounds with particular instruments. But even these plusses can detract from one’s appreciation of the music as whole. Then there are all the visual distractions of the house – in our case principally the cats and dog! Or I decide I want a drink. Or a loo break. Or somehow just being at home makes me think about other things. For whatever combination of these reasons, and probably for others I have not quite put my finger on, I do find the complete concentration and immersion which I need to be able to bring to listening to classical music hard to attain when I am watching a concert on television. For some reason this does not apply when I am just listening, or when I am watching ‘live’ (ie: in a concert hall) – I am not saying I always achieve the shutting out of everything else which I desire, but I find it easier to do so. It might be objected that the obvious solution to this problem would be to just listen to the televised Proms – to watch with my eyes shut! But I find this almost impossible to do : I am afraid that, for me, if a television is on it has to be watched. This is why I dislike being in other’s people’s houses where the television is left on – because I will invariably watch it, which appears, and no doubt is, rude. An unwatched television is as much of a problem for me as an unread book left lying about. Indeed it is worse because I will watch anything on television.
Anyway these remarks and minor problems aside, outstanding Proms in 2010 which I have seen/heard (a tiny percentage of the total) have been performances of Shostakovich 5, 7 and 10; our own CBSO playing Beethoven and Dvorak’s New World (Nelsons is as much a star on television as in the flesh, and it did make my parochial pride swell because they are just so damn good – certainly better than any other British orchestra that I saw, as I think was implied by the BBC’s guest commentators); an extraordinary performance by the Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova of a new violin concerto by Huw Watkins (which proved to me that I can find youngish living composers listenable!); Bruckner’s 9th; and absolutely everything by Mahler (especially Simon Keenlyside singing the Ruckert Lieder).
The best by far however was a performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. Also on this programme was music by Wagner, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg: all these pieces were immaculately played, and there was a very interesting interval presentation on the Second Viennese School. Rattle’s immense charisma was in great evidence, but I found this music rather difficult for my limited ear, although it was certainly interesting. The performance of the Four Last Songs sung by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila was a very different matter. This, for me, was transcendent music-making, as near perfect as makes no difference. A truly wonderful orchestra, under a great conductor (Rattle seems to belong now to some heroic age of conducting ,and now doubt he plays, as he always has done, to this image: that does not detract from his genius), with a truly brilliant and marvellously expressive singer, performing some of the most moving music ever written. Yes, this is something else I want played at my funeral. Strauss seems to me to present death in a secular fashion with both desire and immense regret. I could watch this again and again (well I have already done so twice) and never tire of it. Now this one performance which I had no problem at all in being utterly riveted by.