MUSIC / PROMS: Small ripples in a calm sea: As the 100th season of Henry Wood Proms sails into port, Bayan Northcott wonders if the programming is running out of steam

Bayan Northcott
Friday 02 September 1994 23:02

Call no man happy. Or, at any rate, no critic. For here we are near the end of not just any old Henry Wood Proms, but the 100th season, expressly planned as a retrospective of a century's changing tastes. And the atmosphere has felt good: large audiences responding warmly to a diversity of music from Palestrina to Peter Maxwell Davies. More conservative listeners might like to argue that such warmth has been directly proportional to the relative scarcity of modernist novelties this year, though John Drummond is promising a final fling of forward-looking commissions for next year's centenary season before handing the Proms back to the Controller, Radio 3, in the person of Nicholas Kenyon. All the same, surveying recent series, this critic finds it difficult to avoid a feeling of retrenchment on several fronts - even of retreat.

Where, for a start, has all the early music gone? Admittedly, as recently as the 1950s, one would have been lucky to hear at the Proms anything much before Handel and Bach. Steadily expanding the repertoire backwards was not the least of William Glock's achievements over the seasons he planned from 1960 to 1973. No doubt he was lucky to arrive at a time when audiences, sated by a decade of the same old classics, seemed ready for historical adventures; lucky as well that, thanks to the historically inspired new music of such composers as the old Stravinsky and the young Maxwell Davies, medieval and Renaissance procedures suddenly sounded remarkably up to date. So Purcell, Cavalli, Monteverdi - the 1610 Vespers under the young John Eliot Gardiner - Byrd and Palestrina were insinuated from the mid-1960s and, with the inclusion of Dufay, Dunstable and Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame in 1969, Glock could claim the season covered a 600-year tradition.

Indeed, by programming the 13th-century Play of Daniel in the 1976 season, Glock's successor from 1974, Robert Ponsonby, actually extended it to 700 years. And Drummond seemed mindful enough of this heritage when he in turn took over in 1987: his first two seasons including a fair sampling of medieval and Renaissance dance music and a 13th-century concert from Gothic Voices. Yet since 1989 there has been no medieval music at all, while this year's Renaissance complement comprises merely some 40 minutes of Lassus and Palestrina and a few dances. For those who believe that the succession of Perotin, Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin et al is as great as anything that came later, this must seem a grievous dereliction - and a surprising one, given the current popularity of such groups as the Tallis Scholars, the Hilliard Ensemble, the New London Consort, and many others. No doubt, as ex- editor of the journal Early Music, Kenyon will have his own ideas on these matters.

Yet it may be this has partly come about by default, as a consequence of the decision of the last five seasons to move everything back into the Royal Albert Hall. Long gone are those hectic days of dashing from the Roundhouse to Westminster Cathedral, from the Albert Hall to St Augustine's, Kilburn, set in train by Glock's pursuit of appropriate venues for ever more specialised programmes. After toying with St Paul's, Knightsbridge, and Kensington Town Hall, Drummond evidently concluded that, suitably lit, a late night Albert Hall could be still more 'magical'. And so it can, but this hardly solves the problems of projecting the sound of a small vocal group or a handful of period instruments to its farthest reaches. Granted, Glock tried programming classical chamber music and even piano solos such as Beethoven's Hammerklavier. But these were given on more penetrating, 'modern' instruments and often from a central stage built out over the fountain - another innovation long since abandoned.

One would have thought that the obvious remedy lay only a hundred yards and two flights of steps away. Radio 3 has broadcast before from the hall of the Royal College of Music; it has a sizeable promenade area and, with suitable screening, an acoustic nicely adaptable to small forces - to say nothing of the same Victorian ambience as the Albert Hall itself. No doubt it would be too naughtily 1960s-ish to suggest that the migration of audiences across the concourse between the two halls might even be accompanied by the odd, out of doors medieval music drama or Turkish wedding band.

Yet that raises something else. By including a late night Indian prom, this year just escapes censure; but it has been the first since 1989 to bring forth anything in the way of 'world' music - unless one counts the 1990 steel band in Kensington Gardens. Once again, it was Glock who initially introduced Imrat Khan in 1971, but Ponsonby who really developed this strand of programming over the years, including offerings of Thai classical and Japanese imperial court music, Balinese gamelans and several Indian classical evenings, culminating in the famous all-night session of 1983. But there remain vast regions even Ponsonby never got round to - and, doubtless, many listeners who would still rather hear an evening of genuine African drumming than the kind of bland Western minimalism supposedly inspired by it.

Which is not to suggest that the central function of the Proms should ever be other than the revealing, sustaining and replenishing of the Western musical tradition in all its inexhaustible richness. Impossible, of course, in any single season - which is why one can only fairly criticise trends over many.

Arguably, Glock's most important achievement of all was to expand the representation of absolutely central figures such as Bach and Haydn who had previously been known only by a fraction of their outputs. But again it was Ponsonby who risked outraging the traditionalists by arguing that, in continuing this process, certain readily available and really hackneyed items of the repertoire - the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, for instance - might have to be pushed aside. Has Drummond, by contrast, shown a certain tendency to slope back to the old warhorses? There are three Rachmaninov concertos in the current season. Yet it could also be argued that we take Rachmaninov rather more seriously as a composer than even 20 years ago.

In any case these comments are intended as notes towards a stock- taking, not as a personal indictment. The performing time available to a Proms planner has not changed much over the decades; there are more concerts now but they are also shorter. And by the time all the expected repertoire and available performers have been fitted in, the room for manoeuvre may be surprisingly small. Then there are the pressures: conservatives who only want to hear commissions in the style of 1940s film music signed George Lloyd; campaigners like Priti Paintal, who recently asserted that half the Proms ought to comprise music by women (it would be interesting to see her detailed programme proposals); and pests like this critic constantly going on about the scandal of 100 Proms seasons without a note of Franz Schmidt.

Doubtless there are more covert BBC constraints and pressures too, and not least, the Zeitgeist: hopeful and exploratory in Glock's time; turbulent and divisive for much of Ponsonby's, but today, if the almighty recording industry is anything to go by, increasingly geared to the familiar and the repetitive. Not, or not yet, at the Proms, however, according to the lively reception of some of this year's rarer and more abrasive items. But then the most heartening aspect of Drummond's time at the BBC has been his consistent resistance to the soft sell, his reaffirmation that great music is worth taking a bit of trouble over. Which is why, whatever the incidental quibbles, one awaits next year's consummatory season with real hope.

The 1994 Proms continue until next Saturday (box office: 071-589 8212).

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