Sunday 26 July 2009

Proms 2009 - Elgar, Delius and Holst from Mackerras and the BBC Philharmonic (Prom 12)

Charles Mackerras is always one of those conductors whose concerts are a must for me if I'm within reach (or broadcast if not). So I wasn't about to miss Prom 12, even though the programme of Elgar, Delius and Holst wasn't one that immediately jumped out at me. As always though, Mackerras is so persuasive, I find myself wondering why.

He was paired with the BBC Philharmonic, with whom he's done good work before, most notably a superb recording of Mahler's sixth symphony (a BBC Music Magazine cover disc that bafflingly doesn't seem to have enjoyed commercial release). Throughout, the playing of the orchestra was of an extremely high standard.

First up was Elgar's Cockaigne overture. He brought out the wonderful richness of score, the drama and the grandeur. Also of note, as a sometime trombonist, it's nice to see a piece with five trombones - not every day you get that. It was wonderful to hear the Voice of Jupiter, as the hall's fine organ is known, at the work's close. Since this was restored a couple of years back it hasn't been used as much as might be - how about a Mahler eighth next year from Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (after all, it would be the centenary of the piece's first performance).

Then came Delius and The Song of the High Hills. It's not a piece I know at all (or so I thought, but an examination of iTunes shows I have a recording of Mackerras himself conducting it!), and, indeed, Delius isn't a composer I know too well either. Apparently Mackerras is a specialist, add that to the absurdly long list of such composers. Indeed, having a pretty extensive library of his recordings, it is doubly surprising to discover new specialisms. Actually, I recently bought a disc he did live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra which included The Walk to the Paradise Garden (which I myself have played very badly in an amateur orchestra).

Mackerras coloured the piece beautifully. The entry of the choir was wonderfully tantalising (such that at first you're not quite sure whether they're actually singing or not). At least on the Radio, obviously you don't get this effect on the TV. The BBC Singers, along with soloists Rebecca Evans and Toby Spence, sang very well. That said, for me the work doesn't quite so vividly capture the mountains as does Strauss's Alpensinfonie (there's something I'd love to hear Mackerras do).

After the interval it was Holst's Planets suite. Not a piece I'm hugely fond of, perhaps because it's too often played and too often imitated (for example the passage in Saturn to which John Williams probably owes a debt for the map room scene in Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Mackerras brought an incredible mix both of lightness of touch and raw power. Mars made for a thrilling start, full of drama and energy. In his hands it didn't seem overly familiar or cliched. Indeed, the stamina he has, given his age, is really quite extraordinary.

Venus was sublime and beautifully textured. Mercury was played with delicacy and fleetness of foot (and yet weight to the climaxes was not lacking).

Jupiter, even more so than Mars, had a sense of freshness. As elsewhere, he mixed grandeur and lightness perfectly. In Saturn he brought out the textures beautifully (especially the bells).

Uranus again was full of power and yet none of the intricacy of the score was lost along the way. In Nepture Mackerras vividly brought out the shimmering textures and captured the ethereal feel. This is especially true of the offstage choir, and I wish I'd been in the hall to experience it (I would be curious to hear Runnicles do this one, given his genius for off-stage placement). The subtle fade away at the end was nicely done, though, of course, given it's the choir alone, by this point Mackerras had ceased waving the baton.

The whole performance was justly well received. Mackerras, as an Australian born in American, isn't exactly the first person who springs to mind as a champion of British music, and yet clearly he is an excellent one. He's made this country his home for over six decades, and as the Proms audience showed, we're more than happy to claim him as one of our own.

It was broadcast on both BBC2 and Radio 3 (the sound on the former seeming slightly better). Video direction was not that annoying (often I find it frustrating as the camera doesn't go where my eyes want to). But why at the start of Venus, did they feel we needed that extended shot of the ceiling and the auditorium; I'm not tuning in to see those things, I'm tuning in for the musicians and the music. Still, it wasn't the Bernstein Mahler second, where the director was more interested in Ely cathedral than anything musical. Similarly, which patronising idiot thought it was necessary to flash up pictures of each planet in the gap between the movements. Please! The more so given Holst's inspiration was more astrological than astronomical.

Then there was Clive Anderson, who for some reason was presenting the whole thing. Why, why, why? I suppose it could be worse: in 2005 when they televised Mackerras's HMS Pinafore the coverage was fronted by Alan Titchmarsh. Honestly, how many people are going to tune into this kind of thing because a minor celebrity is fronting this? When you watch the Olympics you don't find Rob Cowan on duty. And, quite rightly, sports fans would be outraged if you did. So why do the BBC think they can screw us classical fans about in this manner? A tiny slice of the licence fee goes to this stuff, is it really too much to ask that they do it properly? Anderson was, in part, made up for by the excellent Philip Sheppard (who I recently encountered as a result of his composing the very fine music for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, review to follow). His other guest, Catherine Knight, was less good (incorrectly ageing Mackerras at 84 as opposed to 83).

Anderson also informed us we could push the red button for Maestro Cam and get a head on view of Mackerras as he conducted. Using the wonders of my freeview box I taped this too, or thought I had. Actually I got an annoying commentary over all the music. Good God why? From Delius onwards we got picture in picture instead of just a shot of the conductor. These were not in sync with each other (though this was fixed for the Holst). (Apparently you can turn the commentary off, but why it isn't off by default I don't know. This is one thing on a DVD, but on one viewing? Seriously!)

Things were only a little better on Radio 3 where I was reminded why I don't much miss the end of live broadcast - interval programming. True, this wasn't the piece from a few years ago which tried to claim that Dvorak's music all reflected his love of trains (okay, I exaggerate very slightly, but only very slightly). Still, the silly voices used in this documentary about the three composers were pretty needless.

However, such minor, albeit pointless, blemishes should not detract from what was, musically, a stunning concert.

Mackerras will be back on 11th August, this time with the BBC Concert Orchestra, for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. It should be quite something. Given it's semi-staged you might expect it to get an outing on TV. But no. That would be, what's the word, sensible, and as should be clear, sense has no impact on the decision making for these things.

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