Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Emperor and his new clothes

FIRST, here is the link to Artsblogging, the collaborative blog in which George Hunka, Helen Radice and I are pooling forces (if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor). This is how George describes it:

"Romantic tradition has it that artists are alienated not only from our
culture but from each other, and despite the explosion of information
technology in the past twenty years I can't say that personally I feel any
less alienated than I did in 1984. Blogs have the potential to provide the
communication and communion missing from the fragmented cultural milieux
in which we're all participating. Now, at least, we can be alienated

Do come and join us! I shall, of course, be keeping this one going as diligently as ever... which end, the Prom last night was quite an experience. Anyone convinced of the imminent demise of classical music should have been there. The place was packed to the magic mushrooms in the ceiling. And the ovation that greeted the veteran pianist Alfred Brendel before he had even played testified to the way people not only love the music but love its finest exponents even if they do happen to be white, male and 75. This was to be Brendel's last Prom: reports say that he no longer wants to do live broadcasts, and for someone who has been playing at the Proms for 36 years this seems fair enough. He played the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto, and for this night he was an emperor of the piano himself. The performance was full of colour, the tenderest and most luminous phrasing and the exhilaration of making music in such a joyous atmosphere; only a few memory lapses betrayed what might be the great man's reasons for wanting to bow out.

This was not all: before the concerto, we had to listen to the token piece of Birtwistle. Apparently there has only been about one Prom season in the last 20 years or so (that figure may be wrong - I'll check it) in which Birtwistle has not been played. I've never 'got' the big deal about Birtwistle. There are vast numbers of finer composers both dead and alive who never get a look in the BBC Proms door. It's not only that I don't like the way it sounds; but often, and certainly last night, I don't think it's very good music. This was a setting of three poems by Brendel - who, in case you haven't read them, is a marvellous poet, not only musical but also surreal and often hilarious. The three poems Birtwistle set are all excellent, but did the music add anything? Did it have anything to do with the words? Think of what Schumann could add to Heine, Faure to Verlaine, Duparc to Baudelaire... But here I found the noises emanating from (very good) baritone and orchestra little other than pointless - the usual Birtwistlian gloom and discord and squalliness. What for? Yes, it was the emperor again: but this time, the Emperor's New Clothes. The Emperor did very well without them.

And, oh my dears, it was SO last century. As Brendel is giving up Proms, couldn't someone persuade Birtwistle to do so as well so that we can hear some 21st-century voices instead? Music has GOT to move on from this cod-liver-oil effect. We need new sounds that can inspire us, sounds that look forward instead of backward, individual voices that communicate and fascinate and stimulate. We need new voices for a new century and the Proms should be trying to find them.