Magazine article The Spectator

Mythical Attraction

Magazine article The Spectator

Mythical Attraction

Article excerpt


Mythical attraction

Festival themes require a tacit agreement between the organiser and the public that in the interests of experiment there will be dross as well as old favourites and exciting discoveries. The dross should be seen as providing a necessary perspective and will be tolerable to the extent that the theme was interesting in the first place. Nicholas Kenyon's Greek Myths theme at the Proms this year was one of the most productive I can remember, since an unsuspected number of leading composers were attracted to the myths. The problem is that much of the music in question was conceived on a Herculean scale, of the type that only the Proms can consider staging.

There was some dross (Mendelssohn's Antigone was a disappointment), few old favourites (what a bore Dido and Aeneas is), and some thrilling discoveries (Stravinsky's Persephone and Sibelius's The Oceanides); but all in all it was an exciting and rather daring marriage, which I only hope has not turned out to be a bridge too far in terms of audience size and reaction. Of the big operatic productions, I thought Tippett's King Priam and Berlioz's were quite exceptional.

But to me the Proms is about the best orchestral playing in the world as much as themes, and in general the two didn't coincide. Strauss's Ein Heldenleben may have god-like references, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring may have elemental power both played by the Berlin Philharmonic but neither refers to the Greeks.

I wish there was something new to say about the Berlin Philharmonic. The only criticism I've ever heard of them is that they don't employ enough women but, after seeing the all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew currently showing at the Globe, I was prepared to he indulgent about that. It doesn't seem to matter who is playing, or indeed who is conducting them, they make exactly the same sound that they made under Furtwangler decades ago. Rattle may have changed the repertoire a little and made them do educational work for the first time, hut for all the hype he has not remade the sound. Perhaps there are people who hate that burnished perfection, as people hate Earl Grey tea or arc sick to death of the brown sauce that is so mandatory in French cuisine above a certain level. …

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