Magazine article The Spectator

Proms: The Problem of Early Music

Magazine article The Spectator

Proms: The Problem of Early Music

Article excerpt

They say the first step towards recovery is admitting that you have a problem. So I'm staging an intervention and asking the BBC Proms to admit what they've known for some time: they have a big problem when it comes to early music. How to perform it, where to perform it, even who should perform it -- these are all questions that, year after year, remain unsatisfactorily, inconsistently or superficially answered, and there's little in this year's programming to suggest that 2017 will be any different.

Up until now the festival's conversation about early music has been dominated by the red-herring question of venue. When the readers of Time Out magazine voted the Royal Albert Hall one of the 20 best music venues in London I'll venture it wasn't performances of Palestrina or Pergolesi that they had in mind. The Proms have tacitly acknowledged the difficulty of this acoustic nightmare of a venue in recent years, exiling most of the early music concerts to an increasing number of satellite venues -- initially just Cadogan Hall, but now with the new 'Proms at...' strand to churches, car parks and all other kinds of spaces.

This is good news -- up to a point. The whole point of the Proms is its open-armed, come-one-come-all attitude; the accessibility of tickets, both in terms of price and number, is absolutely central to this. When you swap the RAH (capacity over 5,000 before you open the Arena to Prommers) for even Cadogan Hall, let alone the tiny Sam Wanamaker Playhouse or Wilton's Music Hall, you lose your casual ticket buyers, your first-timers, tourists -- all those for whom an unexpected early music encounter might be most telling. The success of the exceptions -- Alina Ibragimova and Yo-Yo Ma's solo Bach performances in 2015 -- only emphasises this.

So if changing the venue isn't the solution, what is? I think the answer is twofold. The first part is to do with repertoire; we know certain pieces, certain composers, lend themselves better to this space, so why fight it? Pygmalion's performance of the Monteverdi Vespers proved again this year what we already knew from John Eliot Gardiner's superb, spatialised staging in 2010 -- that this is a piece whose musical scope and drama just works in this building. The same goes for solo Bach, Handel's larger-scale oratorios and a cappella renaissance polyphony, while out goes medium-sized baroque and almost anything with a chamber organ.

The second part is tougher. We've fought so hard to establish historically informed performance, to swap contemporary instruments for period ones, lush 19th-century orchestrations for lean authentic ones, that we're naturally unwilling to regress. …

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