When lockdown began in March and one-by-one the summer music and opera festivals began dropping off the calendar, the self-styled “world’s greatest music festival” kept quiet about their plans for longer than most. When the BBC finally bowed to the inevitable and admitted that there was no way the summer season as we know it could take place this year, it promised instead to broadcast six weeks of concerts drawn from its capacious Proms archives, followed by a programme of live performances – details of which are still to be confirmed – direct from an empty Royal Albert Hall.
That’s what was launched on BBC Radio 3 last night, with a parallel series of televised concerts on BBC Four beginning on Sunday. There are certainly some memorable performances among the selection of recordings that will be broadcast, though they hardly delve as deeply into the archives as one might have hoped. The earliest concert in the list dates from 1987, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Albert Hall, and among the more glamorous appearances by orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Dresden there are a number of run-of-the-mill programmes from recent years, when one might have hoped for at least something from the 1960s and 70s.
While the bulk of this archive series consists of complete concerts, which presumably will be broadcast exactly as they originally went out, for the first night there was a specially devised sequence of memorable Proms performances. Igor Levit’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was part of the opening night three years ago, though the aspect of his performance that made the headlines – his encore of Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, an unmissable pro-EU statement in the midst of the Brexit debate – was omitted, apparently because of time constraints. A rerun of the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s saxophone concerto Panic, with John Harle as the soloist, recalled the delicious furore it created at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995, when an audience that had turned up to sing Rule, Britannia! and wave its union flags, was required to listen to contemporary music, and didn’t enjoy the experience. And to crown it all there was Claudio Abbado’s unforgettable 2007 performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra and contralto Anna Larsson, in what turned out to be the conductor’s last ever Proms appearance.
But there had been something brand new to begin – Iain Farrington’s Beethoveniana, a six-minute mash-up of themes from the nine Beethoven symphonies performed by a virtual orchestra of 350 players from all five of the BBC orchestras, with the BBC Singers adding a final saccharine version of the Ode to Joy. On its own terms it’s a deft enough piece of musical tailoring, slickly integrated and irrepressibly perky in tone, but ultimately trite and trivial. Even considering the current restrictions, though, it was a pretty unimaginative way of marking the Beethoven anniversary; inviting a range of young composers to write their responses to Beethoven might have been more inclusive. Perhaps the new works promised for the live concerts at the end of the series will have more weight and sense of purpose.
• The 2020 BBC Proms continue on Radio 3 and BBC Four until 12 September.