The Proms, I thought, got off to a rather scrappy start last weekend, although they're picking up now. A performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto by the Chinese wunderkind Lang Lang which was stronger on notes than music and a rather mushy Prokofiev film score of Ivan on the first night; a slightly feeble attempt at populism on the second night and a performance of Tippett's King Priam last Sunday with, as far as I could make out, an auditorium only a third full.
The sparse showing was particularly unjust. It's an austere work but a very considerable one, far too rarely heard. But it set me wondering whether the Proms, which is doing more and more opera in concert each year, should be thinking of doing them semi-staged.
They tried it - not wholly successfully - with Glyndebourne's Fidelio a few years ago but don't seem to have repeated the exercise. Which is a pity. The growth in semi-staged performances of baroque opera, started by the Early Opera company and developed with great panache by French companies, has been one of the joys of concert-going in recent years, revolutionising the musical repertoire.
I would have thought that Priam, which draws on a relatively small orchestral force and pursues a highly stylised, almost cantata-like form, would have been just the subject for similar treatment. Certainly it would have drawn the audience into a more intimate relationship with a work that deserves a far wider hearing.
The problem of presentation has become more urgent with the more extensive televising of the Proms on BBC4. In a sense this can only be for the good. Although the critics tend to concentrate almost exclusively on what they hear each night, the glory of the Proms is in their live performance, that elusive relationship between audience and player which makes a performance so exciting and unpredictable. Radio goes only part of the way to communicating this, especially when overlain by BBC comperes talking in hushed tones of reverence as if they were at a royal funeral.
The drawback is that television is far from a natural medium for concert music. The camera is a restless observer ever drawn to detail and to movement so that all too often what you get is a visual narrative at constant variance with the musical one. The BBC tries hard. With four cameras in the hall and a prior knowledge of the score, it tries to move in on the individual instruments, in rhythm with the piece. For song or sonatas this broadly works. But the live experience of an orchestral work is quite different from the in-out, different angle shooting score of television. You see, and keep a sense of the orchestra as a whole, even as your eye picks up the detail.
Could television ever manage this? Well it could try. The BBC's full-orchestra camera shots naturally concentrate the eye on the backdrop, not the players. The backdrop itself needs a visual rethink, especially when there are only small forces and great acres of empty rows in view. And maybe it would be worth experimenting with a performance being taken by the camera entirely from the conductor's view.
One moan about the Albert Hall: its refit is very successful with an infinitely better distribution of refreshment points, but the bar staff are utterly hopeless - worse even than the staff at the Barbican, if that were possible. It's good to see so many young Europeans here to learn English, but it would be only fair to give them some training in bar tending. Not that the Albert Hall helps by pricing the drinks in odd sums - £4.55 for a glass of wine, £3.10 for a beer - so that every purchase demands complicated change. And what is one to make of a summer venue such as this which doesn't have a licence which allows you to take your drink outside?
¿ While on the subject of television, and doing the opposite of moaning, I think Channel Five deserves some plaudits for the documentaries it's producing these days. This week alone has seen the launch of new series on the First World War (World War I in Colour, on Wednesdays), history (Battlefield Detectives, also on Wednesdays) and art (The History of British Sculpture, on Fridays), as well as the continuation of Brian Sewell's pilgrimage to Santiago in The Naked Pilgrim: The Road to Santiago. Too much on war, true. The detective series looks a bit thin on the opening programme, lots of pictures of people experimenting with cannon and not much about the true context. But, rather to my surprise, the World War I in Colour, in which old newsreels have been digitally colourised, proved gripping. "See the war as the soliders saw it," said the trailer, which is nonsense. Its effectiveness is that it isn't in true colour but washed tones, which gives a peculiarly compelling quality. As for the series on sculpture, three dimensional art is a natural for television, and when you combine it with the quirky enthusiasm of someone like Loyd Grossman the result is delectable.Reuse content