The Proms will always have one major handicap: the Royal. Albert Hall acoustic. There's no getting around it; some of the sound is lost no matter where you sit or stand — even if you're underneath the conductor there's distortion. And it's not just the weedy early music that suffers, even those composers who you'd think would suit a vast expanse — Bruckner, Mahler, Tchaikovsky — lose a few kilos in this bare cave.
Still, very few of us stay away. No. We return year on year. We learn to live with it. We find "favourite seating areas" based on sudden flashes of acoustical knowledge that we never thought we had, and we stick by it rigidly (and foolishly) all season.
For some, it's all about standing; for others, it's about stalls left. "It just gets better and better the higher you go," insist a few. Yeah, right. For me it's all about my legs. And for all those looking up at the Queen's box with envy, I can assure you — having once sneaked in she has a dud.
Whatever you decide to do, it takes a concert or two to get used to it. And, for the Proms, somehow, it's always worth it. Probably because, despite the distances, there is clarity, and the talent that this festival attracts always comes through. This year has been no exception.
Early on, there was an astounding concert. Astounding for many reasons. Above all, it was high risk. Dance suites from Rameau — not a household name would be presented, first, by the worldclass John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists, accompanied by a French dance troupe, and then by a youth orchestra from Soweto accompanied by African dancers, performing gumboot shuffles and the like.
Astounding then, with that sort of competition, that the young South Africans — performing their first Prom managed to hold their own. But they did, and more. The Sowetan dancers had an originality, deftness,-humour and _ spontaneity that was utterly lacking in the self-conscious French attempt — so nauseatingly postmodern.
A heavy-set girl would come out from behind a drum and lollop to the front. What was she going to do? Shuffle. Just shuffle — and shake, of course. Constantly listening, constantly adjusting her subtle movements to the tiny ornamental shifts in the music. The crowd roared their approval. (Gardiner peevishly — jealously? — had to start up his orchestra while the crowd was still baying for the South Africans to return.) By the end, as the two groups "came together-, the gulf became embarrassing. The French were sidelined, left to blow bubbles from the edges, while the South Africans hurled themselves consummately back and forth.
This was no gimmick. We weren't just watching a meaningless exercise in cultural diversity; we were being presented with the reinvention of the Baroque.
Kurt Masur was also reinventing things in his performance of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Reinventing by reverting. His account went back to the recordings of the 1940s. It was slow though not unvariedly so — with long legatos and high-arched phrasing.
Refusing to shy away from manipulating tempi and phrases for expressive effect — as they used to do so much more freely — Masur developed a compelling personal narrative, one which didn't try to unify the work's disparate worlds, the dark boils and the lilting sweetness, never making excuses for the strangeness, but letting both breathe and resound. The outstanding brass section deserve a special mention here — the glory of the performance.
Where some of Bruckner's oddity came from was hinted at in a great little late-night Prom. Schubert's Mass in E flat major: its heart-stopping harmonic leaps and blazing themes must have inspired Bruckner.
The orchestra. Collegium Musicurn 90, were a little scrappy — and Susan Gritton's voice was shrill and breathy but it didn't matter; it was such a delight to hear this rarity. There was so much to listen to, so much to get out of it.
The neglect of the Mass is strange, especially considering that it comes froin the last few months of his life, the period from which all his other great works also come.
Interestingly, it starts in clement mood with some polite dotted rhythms on the double basses. But, as ever with Schubert, things blacken. And it is the double basses that herald the coming pall in the Domine Deus, slipping about disquietingly like Gesualdo.
Just as unorthodox is his attention to Mass convention. He repeats the Crucifixion for musical effect — Schubert was not your conventional Catholic. The work continues schizophrenically, struggling with queer figures and fugues, the double basses acting as a flapping rudder. A return to the home key in the fatal bars is overwhelmed by a final forbidding timpani roll.
Was that really a Mass? It felt more like a bad dream— a cheese-enhanced hallucination.
Nothing so unnerving in Masaaki Suzuki's late-night visit. His lauded Japanese band, the Bach Collegium, played an outstanding and understated concert made up of some Bach cantatas and his little G major Mass.
Unfortunately, their straight performance didn't always lend itself to the cave. Still. there were some incredible moments: above all. a duet between the ever-glorious Carolyn Sampson and a silky Robin Blaze in Bach's Cantata: Jesu, der du mein Seele (BWV78). The interest lay in the accompaniment: a bouncy continuo ground that sounded like a beery peasant dance.
What I hadn't noticed were the words: "We hasten with weak yet eager steps/ 0 Jesus, 0 master, to you for your help." Not a lumpy jig but a reassuring spring in faltering, penitential steps.