Strauss, Debussy, Szymanowski

COMPOSERS: Debussy,Strauss,Szymanowski
WORKS: Also sprach Zarathustra
PERFORMER: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka, Mark Elder
What do you think of when you think of the Proms? Probably the chance to see and hear a clutch of world-class foreign orchestras and soloists. Or adventurous programming of new music from Britain and elsewhere, including each year several commissioned works. Or even the Proms’ famed eclecticism, a series of concerts taking in ethnic musics, musicals, semi-staged operas, film music, recitals and more.


But if you imagine, as you reasonably might, that these five recordings from the 1998 season will reflect any or all of the above, forget it. The BBC has decided to cash in on a potentially lucrative archive of recordings, but only those featuring BBC orchestras. As Proms visitors will attest, such performances are an integral part of any Proms season, but do not necessarily offer all the highlights.

The best admittedly contain some fine moments. The BBC Symphony Orchestra disc has a magisterial Froissart from Andrew Davis and an intensely sustained Sinfonia da Requiem from Mark Elder. The BBC Scottish SO under Osmo Vanska turn in a Beethoven 7 played for thrills and delivering enough of them to excuse an inadvertent clattering at the beginning of the Allegretto. Their Shostakovich 3 is an admirably stirring and resonant performance of a disagreeable piece of music. The BBC Philharmonic are joined by Sergei Leiferkus in Shostakovich 13 (why so much Shostakovich?) and respond well to his rich, multi-textured baritone. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales generally fares less well: a patchy and incoherent Also sprach Zarathustra, bedevilled by intrusive surface noise, is a nadir. Their happiest moments come with tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, sensous and entreating in Szymanowski’s Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, and in Debussy’s Jeux under Mark Elder, whose performances are always finely judged.


The pity is, though, how unsuccessful these discs are in capturing the brilliance and diversity, the excitement and endless variety of the Proms. The very look of the discs, with their tired artwork, is dull and the content overfamiliar and unchallenging. One suspects that the urgings of a BBC accountant and not the pursuit of musical excellence lie behind the whole enterprise.