16 MAY 1992, Page 37


Proms problems

Peter Phillips

Murmur reached me even before the prospectus itself that this year's Prom sea- son was going to be dull. How quickly these rumours form and spread, and how fearful they are: a few well-chosen monosyllabic words which can sink the best endeavours without hope of reprieve weeks before the case for the defence can be mounted. I shall contribute a few well-chosen polysyl- labic words to the same end.

In his introduction to the new prospec- tus, John Drummond briefly restates all the basic decisions which he has had to make over the years, the fruits of which have come to characterise his reign at the Proms. I agree with every one of them (even though they effectively mean that I cannot take part): that all the concerts should be in the Albert Hall, that this 'marvellous auditorium ... for large-scale works' is used for just that, that there should be a strong representation of for- eign orchestras of the highest calibre, that each year a small number of composers should be explored in depth. How is it, then, that with some notable exceptions the planning, which looked so good last year and produced a succession of excellent concerts, seems tired now?

One reason is a personal one, which can- not be blamed on Mr Drummond: the choice of composers to be featured. I find Shostakovich very hard to take, so that the four symphonies, second piano concerto and suite Hypothetically Murdered on offer . . not just swearing, Mrs Mitchell, but swearing in Americanese!' makes me think of the composers who I would rather were given this opportunity (like Nielsen). If any of the Shostakovich concerts seems hopeful I would recom- mend the one given by the St Petersburgh Philharmonic (I still thrill to the name) on 25 August, when they will play the Fifth Symphony under Mariss Jansons. I seem to remember that there was quite a lot of Shostakovich last year.

Anniversarians are given short shrift. Rossini is rightly held to be more suited to the opera house than to the concert plat- form. As for Milhaud and Honegger: 'there is a nod — but no more than that — in the direction of these two prolific composers whose work doesn't seem to have lodged very satisfactorily this side of the Channel'. Neatly phrased, but in fact hiding a valu- able missed opportunity and something more, which I can't quite put my finger on. However, the main product of Mr Drum- mond's special promotions spotlight this year is Haydn. I'm delighted by this in one way, even if the selection of works could have been more revealing; yet it is a slightly strange decision. I thought we were agreed that the Albert Hall was suited to large- scale works. If Haydn is made to sound large-scale much of his charm is lost, but of the five concerts which will feature his music only one (that by the English Con- cert under Pinnock on 24 August) will involve playing it on original instruments. On modern instruments, in a building like the Albert Hall, Haydn's phrases can easily be overwhelmed. The Vienna Philharmonic and Abbado's version of the 93rd Sympho- ny on 9 September could produce the best of both worlds — a performance sui generis which everyone in the building will be able to hear. But then it seems that Mr Drum- mond and I are never going to agree on what makes a good concert. He writes that for him the 'most outstanding concert of the 1991 Proms' was Prokofiev's Fiery Angel, which I remember as a particularly tedious evening's entertainment.

The difficulty which every festival plan- ner has to confront, and which we never get to hear about, is to what extent the par- ticipating musicians insist on doing the works which they happen to have in reper- toire at the time. Many of the less imagina- tive themes in festivals come from the coincidence that, say, three artists have made some Haydn a condition of their appearance. To judge from the way he writes, the nitty-gritty of fixing down all these concerts — a most laborious task, I can well imagine — is weighing on Mr Drummond, who even gives the impression of looking over his shoulder at his competi- tors. I'm sure that anyone in his position would have to do this, but I don't recall him mentioning it before. He speaks of being the happy beneficiary of 'the new Salzburg Festival policy' and later lists all the foreign festivals which are preventing him from securing the singers he would like to invite to the Proms. It's good to know that Ann Murray will be 'back from Salzburg in time for her Prom'. Has the mask slipped? Maybe this season will not after all turn out to be dull, but in prospect it does seem a little weary.