Arts: Classical: Sifting the gold from the corn

PROMS 20 AND 21 ROYAL ALBERT HALL/ RADIO 3 LONDON
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the primary virtues of the Proms is the capacity to take risks, and this year's season is being unusually bold. The corollary of risk, of course, is that you don't always succeed, and this weekend saw a couple of glorious failures.

The first was Saturday's "100 Years of Film Music", with Lord (Richard) Attenborough as MC and the (under-rehearsed) BBC Concert Orchestra under Carl Davis, playing music by Davis himself, Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, Jarre, Walton, Arnold, Chaplin, John Williams and George Fenton, who took over the baton for his own pieces. Though the concert, supported by a generously illustrated programme booklet, played to a packed house, it ended up doing film music no good.

To begin with, Attenborough's introductions were as stiff as a headmaster's end-of-term speech. Written English and spoken English are not the same (you can write "a sentiment which with I concur" but you say "I agree"). Did no one think to pass his text through the BBC copy-editors?

Then the music was presented in little gobbets that precluded any genuine sense of atmosphere, making each item a picture postcard - those stabbing string chords from Psycho aren't supposed to generate laughing recognition. And too much of the material was saccharine: only Korngold's overture to The Sea Hawk and George Fenton's excerpts from Cry Freedom really convinced, the Korngold because of its sheer quality (right from those thrilling opening fanfares) and the Fenton because its blend of African rhythm and European melody didn't aspire to symphonic stature - it simply came at you direct.

In the end, does it do film music any good to be stuck in this kind of ghetto? If it's good music, it's good enough for a normal concert. Kicking off an evening of Beethoven and Bruckner with 633 Squadron would give it a more exciting start than any number of operatic throat-clearers.

The second noble squib went off on Sunday, with Elgar's oratorio The Kingdom. It never really gets off the ground, Elgar's wordy text helping to truss its feet. Dip into it for any four-minute stretch and it's everything you could expect of Elgar, with moments where his orchestral mastery sends a tingle down the spine - but the full 100 minutes is a long plod. Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus lavished every effort on the score but still couldn't wake it up.

The revelation of the last few days was the late-night concert by Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra, one of the best choirs on the scene, now with its own Baroque Orchestra. A menu of three 17th-century French composers, Charpentier, Bouzignac and Delalande, all dwelling on death, may look grim on paper; in the flesh it was riveting, bringing the discovery that the unknown Guillaume Bouzignac was a radical master of extraordinary harmonic daring.

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