Rounding off the BBC Proms 2018 (ahead of the Last Night festivities) was a performance of Handel’s Theodora from Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen. One of Handel’s own favourites, Theodora lacks the fire and brimstone of many of Handel’s other oratorios, and it was a box-office flop when it premiered in 1750. Thanks to the modern trend of staging these sacred works, however, it’s since become a firm favourite in opera houses.
Seated at the keyboard, Cohen elicited meticulous, energetic playing from his band, whilst adding spritely continuo support during recitatives. Thomas Dunford’s theorbo playing, at times strikingly percussive, and other times beautiful languorous, was a constant joy (and I don’t think he missed a single note in nearly three hours). The chorus of 36 displayed great agility during the fugal passages that Cohen took at quite a lick. Tenor Matthew Long delivered his contributions as a step-out soloist with great poise.
The starry cast cast of soloists were on fine form: Louise Alder (Theodora) and Iestyn Davies (Didymus) projected a beautifully warm tone, and combined sensitively for their two duets. The two lovers were joined by Benjamin Hulett (Septimus), Ann Hallenberg (Irene) and Tareq Nazmi (Valens) who all gave stylish accounts.
But what prevented me from really relishing this performance was the venue. The Royal Albert Hall is just too big. Taking a scroll down Twitter following the performance, one commentator remarked about the ‘barn of an acoustic’. Even that is being generous; I’ve witnessed performances of baroque music in barns with some very fine acoustics. This was more like having a three-hour-long phone call with an elderly relative who doesn’t know how to use a mobile phone; I was constantly straining my ears to hear the detail.
I’ve witnessed other concerts at the Proms performed by period instrument ensembles and had the same reaction: Bach’s B Minor Mass from Les Arts Florissant, and Handel’s Israel in Egypt. Both felt distant and unengaging. Period instruments have a wonderful grain and idiosyncratic sound that can really engage the ear when in the right space. Neither the instruments, nor the music, were designed to fill the unfathomable space of the Royal Albert Hall, built 121 years after the first performance of Theodora. Listening live on BBC Radio 3 is often the better option for concerts like this one.
This is not to say that David Pickard, Director of the Proms, should stop programming early music. There is large-scale stuff that would work wonderfully in the 5,272-seater Royal Albert Hall. Much French baroque music, for example: the Court of Versailles was particularly renowned for its large musical spectaculars, with performances regularly using as many as 150 musicians. French conductor Vincent Dumestre claims that Marin Marais once performed Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Te Deum (1684) with as many as 300 musicians!
Or, (and early music purists should avert their eyes now), how about some good old-fashioned choral society-style performances?
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Handel’s Messiah with hundreds of singers and a massed band? Very unfashionable now, of course, but is there anything more cheering than a massed choir galloping through ‘And he shall purify the sons of Levi’? I’d challenge you to find more collective gusto in one room.
In recent years the Proms has journeyed from its Kensington home to venues including the Roundhouse, Wilton’s Music Hall, Peckham’s Multi-Storey Car Park, and Alexandra Palace, delivering imaginative programmes that take advantage of what these spaces have to offer. In the years to come, programmers must extend the same care and imagination to music by Handel and Bach, and find more suitable homes. Their music deserves intimate spaces where the intricacy and delicacy of the writing can be experienced and savoured up close.
The Proms is, ostensibly, the greatest festival of music in the world, entirely funded by the BBC Licence Fee, and attempts to ‘bring the best in classical music to the widest possible audience’. Let’s make sure we can actually hear it.