Monday 20 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, Archival Mysteries

This past weekend would normally have seen the start of the Proms. As with other summer Festivals that usually have a significant broadcast presence (Aldeburgh and Edinburgh for example), Radio 3 has marked it with a season from the archive. Given the restricted conditions under which we're all operating at present it is clearly a significant feat to have pulled this six week season together. The opera selection is especially rich: Donald Runnicles, Nina Stemme and Deutsche Oper in Salome, Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera in Don Carlo, Jiri Belohlavek, Karita Mattila and the BBC SO in The Makropulos Affair, and Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in Die Walkure (again with a very starry line-up of soloists, though my preference from that cycle would have been Gotterdammerung for another chance to hear Andreas Schager's Siegfried - the only live occasion I've been really moved by his death). It's also worth noting that, contrary to my first impression, the balance between core repertoire and new works looks pretty close to what it would be in a standard season, and there is appropriate representation of the eclectic genres and performers often seen in the late night slots. The opening weekend hadn't especially stood out for me but turned out to be gripping listening - with Birtwistle's Panic and the energy of Gardiner's Leonora particularly surprising me. All that said, there are (as with the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh broadcasts) significant limits to this delving into the archive which, bizarrely, the BBC seem disinclined to discuss in any detail.

The BBC has talked up the season as a celebration of archival treasures across four decades - but given this would have been the 125th season to go back only 40 years presents a rather truncated picture. Moreover the actual representation of those 40 years in the 2020 season is uneven. It breaks down as follows:

2010s - 28 and a bit concerts, plus 8 chamber recitals
2000s - 16 concerts, plus 2 chamber recitals
1990s - 10 and a bit concerts
1980s - 3 concerts

The earliest of those 1980s concerts comes from 1987, the other two from 1989 - so the season hardly gives much reflection of that decade. As an aside I find it striking that I haven't seen any professional journalist undertake this straightforward bit of maths.

This "formal" season is complemented by two other archival strands - oddly not formally discussed in the press release but which one has to dig out by close reading of the weekly radio listings. Saturday's New Music Show included a Proms Premiere - revisiting the 2008 performance of Stockhausen's Cosmic Pulses. I had assumed that this was to be a weekly series, but there is no sign yet of it continuing the following week (the only date for which listings are currently published). It's also interesting to note that that Stockhausen performance was part of a day devoted to the composer - the second concert of which featuring his Stimmung is included in the main six week season (on Thurs 20th August). Why not recreate the whole evening if both concerts (as it seems) remain in the archives? There was also, I find, a recreation/reimagination later in the same season of the programme in which Mahler's Fifth Symphony was premiered - linking him to Beethoven and Schubert but here with the addition of Stockhausen's Gruppen and contemporary orchestrations of Schubert songs. In view of the focus on Beethoven in his anniversary year it might have been interesting to re-broadcast all three of those concerts as an example of the kind of internal thematic programming the Proms has often done (at least in recent years).

The second of these additional strands pops up periodically in Afternoon Concert (this week Mon-Fri) and, it looks like, the week commencing 3rd August. These all feature BBC ensembles with the earliest performances coming from 2008. The pick of performances so far announced here looks to be Tippett's Midsummer Marriage from 2013 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis and including Erin Wall in the line-up of singers. These repeats offer welcome second chances to hear a number of Proms commissions and their balance between core and new repertoire appears well crafted. But overall, as will be clear, these additional re-broadcasts are focused on a period of just over twelve years.

The only substantive piece I've seen discussing this was a column in the Telegraph on Friday by Ivan Hewett (amongst other things a former Radio 3 presenter of Music Matters). Hewett correctly noted the limitations of coverage, but linked it to an unconvincing argument about the BBC seeking to be "woke" and avoid a season dominated by white, male performers (a quick scan of the listings for the six week season will show that focusing on performances since the 2000s has not prevented a dominance by white male performers). He quotes a BBC explanation that the decisions were taken based on "availability of recordings, original presentation, recordings that aren't widely circulated already, and ensuring artists [are only] featured once". Leaving aside "original presentation" the meaning of which is not clear to me, let us take the other explanations. The decision only to feature artists once is an appropriate one and has been almost entirely followed (I've spotted only one repeat visitor so far - Nina Stemme - appearing as both Brunnhilde and Salome and I have no complaints at all about that!) Excluding recordings widely circulating is a much odder criterion. I would imagine that most of the CDs the BBC uses in many of its programmes are available for public purchase. One of the powerful aspects of art in the pandemic has been the conjuring virtually of collective listening/viewing experiences - surely in that spirit there should have been a place to revisit some of the older classic archival performances which have found their way onto CD? When I first listened regularly to Radio 3 in the mid 90s broadcasts from and contextualisation of archival recordings were a regular feature in programmes like Vintage Years and Mining the Archive (which later morphed into BBC Legends and was tied into the excellent CD label). This is an element of programming that seems to have vanished. Perhaps the assumption is that we all have almost unlimited access to that archive - but it seems to me there's still a place for contextualising it - I've been struck by how little discussion there's been of archival Beethoven in the current anniversary season - surely a critical aspect for our understanding of his music and reputation. The BBC has made much of asking listeners for their Proms memories, but this unusual year surely offered an opportunity to do something more with the history and controversies of the Festival through marriage of archival performances and discussion with scholars than seems to be planned. Maybe the restrictions of covid rendered that impossible, but I wonder.

This leaves us with "availability of recordings" and here the really interesting questions start. This could cover a number of things - what has been issued on CD, what the BBC has in the archive, what can be legally cleared for rebroadcast, what the costs of such clearances/rebroadcasting might be - these are all issues that would bear fuller discussion. They also link, I suspect, to wider questions about the funding of Radio 3 - as I've commented on Twitter before it is instructive to compare the scope and nature of anniversary programming for this Beethoven year with the programming for the Fairest Isle season back in 1995 say, or the old city weekends from the same era (Tanglewood and Prague are two I particularly recall). Doing so makes it sadly clear that the station just doesn't get the same level of resource.

And there's a larger point. Does an archival record exist of the totality of recorded Proms? I haven't found anything publicly accessible, but it is not clear to me that the BBC has such a document. At least as listeners, then, it doesn't seem that we can know what the total archive was from which the BBC made its selections. I've thought for some time that classical music festivals & arts organisations generally could improve their online archives - and it seems to me (with my professional hat on) there must be scope for collaborative doctoral awards here. There are some fine resources out there. The Proms online archival listing is in many ways admirable - but doesn't have that recording preservation data. The Royal Opera online performance archive is excellent. The Glyndebourne archive has been updated (though I miss the handy summary of productions by year). The LSO has an extraordinary document running to over a thousand pages listing every recording the orchestra has ever made. The Chichester Festival now has recently added an online archive. But other Festivals where I'm a regular have little online in this regard - Edinburgh and Aldeburgh come first to mind.

Finally, the concentration on the recent archive of Proms has also made me wonder about the sense of history of those making the selections. This was brought home to me purely by accident over the weekend. I was glancing through some of the listings for the 1980 season - I think I'd started on this after discovering that Charles Mackerras conducted the Last Night that year. I happened to open the full listing for Prom 46 on Wednesday 3rd September 1980. This Prom started with the Proms premiere of Thea Musgrave's Memento Vitae: Concerto in Homage to Beethoven played by Clifford Curzon, who followed it with Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. I confess I'd never heard of the Musgrave piece, but it would seem an obvious work to give another airing to in this anniversary year. The most obvious explanation is, of course, that this concert isn't in the BBC archives. But I did also pause to wonder whether this even came up in thinking about the Beethoven anniversary.

Any archival season will necessarily disappoint some listeners in some regard. As I said at the beginning there are some fabulous performances to look forward to, and it is miraculous, under these challenging conditions, that the BBC has been able to pull this together. But it does raise legitimate questions which ought to be discussed.

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was also surprised at how recent all of the archival material is. The Proms were broadcast back to the 1940s, at least, possibly back further than that. Sigh....

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