Proms 2011: A recipe for the extraordinary

Nick Shave reflects at the mid-point of the festival on what makes for an extraordinary performance

As a spectator, it’s easy to take for granted everything that goes into an extraordinary performance at the Proms. Not just the performers’ talent and training, the years of blood, sweat and tears, but also the promotion, marketing and ticket sales.

As I look back from the mid-point of this year’s Proms festival, two occasions provide an example of just how extraordinary, and how far removed from the every day, the recital can be. The most recent was Khatia Buniatishvili’s performance of Liszt’s mighty B minor Sonata, together with his LiebestraĆ¼m No. 3 and the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 at Cadogan Hall early last week. Her transformation from human to seemingly super-human at the piano, and ability to seize the moment with outlandish displays of virtuosity was remarkable to watch. Worth hearing online, if you haven’t caught it already.

The other standout display of the extraordinary came in the form of Nigel Kennedy’s late-night performance of solo Bach – the E major Preludio from Partita No. 3 and the whole Partita No. 2 in D minor. Whatever you think of the authenticity movement – and in Kennedy’s case, that’s not much – you could not help but be drawn into his expressive reading of the text. It was an intensely personal interpretation – full of colour and imagination.

But Kennedy’s concert also highlighted that fine line between creating an extraordinary performance that leaves you wondering how something has come about, and one that raises the question: why? The ‘why’ moment came when, together with bass, guitar and drums, he broke into the first of four jazz encores with a riff around Bach’s Air on the G String. After the straight Bach it sounded flippant and trite, and so thoughts turned to the years of marketing and promotion that have gone into creating a platform for Kennedy’s jazz, the hours of playing he’s devoted to make possible this transition from Bach to Loussier, and his conversation with Roger Wright that may or may not have gone something along the lines of: ‘I’ll do the Partitas, wicked man, but why don’t we like, mix it up a bit, wiv a little jazz?’

It’s not only easy, then, to take for granted everything that goes into creating a standout performance at the Proms – it’s often preferable.

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls