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Nick Shave explains why the Proms on television beats the live performance

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I’m all for the live concert experience, but perusingThe Guardian Guide’s Pick of the Day (BBC 4, Friday 6 August), I’m reminded of all the reasons why watching the Proms on television can far outstrip the real thing.

Not because of the sound quality – though it’s true you can usually hear the concert more clearly on television than in the foggy acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall. Nor because the camera grants close-ups of the performers – watching the contorted facial expressions of an emoting conductor can be distracting, even if it beats squinting at blobs from the Gods.

On the contrary, for the Friday night Prom the television promised so much more: 'Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé serve up the late-romantic melodramatics of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, with Paul Lewis on piano,' claimed The Guide. 'Before the interval, by way of appetiser, Lewis performs John Foulds’s slightly anachronistic but appropriately summery April, England, Op. 48 No. 1, before tackling the third instalment of his major contribution to this year’s Proms, ploughing through all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos. Tonight, it’s Number 3, which hasn’t gotten any easier in the 210 years since Beethoven wrote it, but in Lewis’s abundantly capable hands it has a better than average chance of sounding as the composer imagined it.'

Interesting. Curious to see whether Lewis would give a live rendering of all three works – two of which are scored without piano – I took my seat in the Royal Albert Hall. It felt like a slow start to the evening, beginning with the summery Foulds – an orchestral tone poem from 1932 that painted a portrait of English spring.

Perhaps a family connection with the Hallé, for which Foulds played cello and his father played bassoon, had earned this piece its place in the programme. Just a memorable theme, some semblance of substance… or a little bit of improvisation from Lewis on piano perhaps… might have rescued Foulds’s shapeless swash of pastel hues.

It would fall to Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben, however, to bring out the Hallé’s strengths in the hall. Lead violinist Lyn Fletcher brought plenty of character to the solo violin’s passages in what was, despite the acoustics, a vivid narration of the hero’s quest for fulfilment.

As for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 (completed 1803), Lewis ploughed ineptly. Witnessed live, it was almost as though he had given up on the whole notion of rotavating all five Concertos and had thought deeply about how to invest each and every note in the score with meaning. Abundantly capable hands? Next time I’ll watch from home.

Prom 27: Foulds: April - England, Op. 48 No. 1; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor; R Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Paul Lewis (piano); the Hallé/Mark Elder

This Prom is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer until Friday 13 August 2010.

Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall.

Related links:
Proms Diary: Early Starters
Proms Diary 2010: Grown-up Beethoven