Extended intervals

In his first diary column for Classical Music, roving critic Michael White has mixed feelings as he reacquaints himself with the Albert Hall and goes from the sublime to the riotous during a musical sojourn in the south of France.

When you’re a London music critic, going to the Proms becomes a temporary change in life. You give up on the Southbank and the Barbican, reorganise your travel, and renew the love/hate intimacy with the Albert Hall that you’d forgotten as you won’t have been there for ten months (unless you’re into Barbara Streisand tribute nights or Raymond Gubbay’s Christmas Classics).

Only when the Proms come round do you recall the RAH’s idiosyncratic charms: the airport-style security of searching bags (as if Islamic terrorists had nothing better to attack than James MacMillan’s latest symphony); the clink of corporate entertainment in the boxes; the outrageously inflated price of ice cream; and the crowds of people re-enacting Dante’s vision of a hellish afterlife as they walk round and round the corridors in an eternal quest to find a loo.

Of course, there is a fun side to the Albert Hall: the red plush, the immensity, the sheer sense of occasion. Henry Wood’s bronze bust seems shinier this year, like it’s been soaked in vinegar. And though the BBC’s lighting department has done its usual worst to make the stage look like a lap-dancing establishment – bathing the orchestra in sleazy reds and purples that suggest the cello section will be naked by the interval – I feel I’m getting used to it.

As for MacMillan’s new fourth symphony in which Al-Qaeda took no interest, it was part of maybe the best Prom I’ve heard this year so far. Immediately attractive in a cinematic way, with ghostly fanfares and disrupted recollections of a distant auditory past, it could have been the soundtrack to the kind of movies that begin with images of smouldering battlefields after the fighting’s done. And it was fabulously well-played by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Donald Runnicles, alongside a Mahler Five that would have done credit to any orchestra on earth. It bothers me that Runnicles’ achievements are so little lauded south of Selkirk. Where’s his knighthood? It’s been due a long time.

If the past is another country, so is the south of France; and they certainly do things differently there when it comes to festivals like Musique Cordiale which I’ve just been to for the fifth or maybe sixth time (they all blur into one happy memory: it’s the local rosé, drunk in quantity between the concerts).

Musique Cordiale is a participation festival, where the dividing line between performers and their audience is fluid. There are ad hoc choirs, an ad hoc orchestra, emerging soloists, and an academy for school-age instrumentalists. Think Dartington with better weather, and you’ll get an idea; but the difference is that it’s incredibly relaxed. The August heat, the picture-book locations (everything takes place in huddled hill-towns west of Nice), the rosé, mean the usual formalities of concert-giving barely figure. Stray dogs trot across the platform. Children play. The audience come and go.

But somehow, out of these unlikely circumstances, minor miracles arise. And there were two when I was there, both countertenors. One, James Hall, sang Purcell with a purity of tone and velvet power that was beguiling. And the other was a 16-year-old Swiss boy, Constantin Emanuel Zimmerman, who ought to be too young to be the voice he is and was apparently still singing treble just a month ago. But he was an outstanding treble who recorded with Ton Koopman.

Relaxation, though, comes at a price – which was exacted in the opera Musique Cordiale put on this year: a Tosca staged in an enchanting little town square, open to the stars and perfect for the job – except that it was next door to a restaurant where a noisy party ran on all night. In the middle of Act II, with Tosca pleading for her lover’s life, the restaurant crowd sang Happy Birthday. Riotously. It was like Charles Ives (or maybe Strauss’s Ariadne). And that Laura Parfitt, the soprano, made it to the end of ‘Vissi d’arte’ without corpsing was an act of heroism that surpassed the fatal leap she didn’t actually do.

This article was originally published in the September issue of Classical Music magazine, a Rhinegold Publishing title, and a Making Music corporate member. Find out more about Classical Music at www.classicalmusicmagazine.org or subscribe at www.magsubscriptions.com/music.