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The Proms on the radio - review

Antonia Quirke finds the music strangely hard to hear in the Albert Hall.

The Proms
BBC Radio 3

To the 73rd Prom: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major played by Murray Perahia and the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink. “The Vienna Phil is considered one of the world’s greatest bands,” Martin Handley assured us on Radio 3 before segueing into clips of Haitink speaking about Perahia, who, so the Amsterdam-born conductor claimed, has a unique sound “vich I can’t explain in vurds”.

In the stalls – where your correspondent was sitting – there seemed to be a more than usually large number of lone male fiftysomething promenaders wearing recycled size 18 T-shirts, rocking back and forth and waving their arms about, disturbing their neighbours, suspended in the moment above any geographical or social involvement. Apparently, 7,500 under-18s attended concerts across the season this year but zilch turned out for Beethoven – and this is the concerto in which the man himself appeared for the last time as a soloist in 1808 in an immense and freezing Vienna theatre, going on to play, so the legend goes, “at the fastest speed imaginable”, before premiering the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies afterwards to boot.

Murray Perahia now makes his way on to the stage. Compact, serious, aged 65, he is precisely how you want your maestro to look. Flicking through the Proms brochure this year, there was a flood of musicians photographed standing with punk attitude inside oil kegs. I like my pianists like Perahia: greying, depressed. The crowd calms. Perahia considers the piano keys for a long time, head low. If he were wearing glasses, they would fall off. Then he begins to play the first movement, alone and questioningly, only to be answered by the orchestra in an amazingly different key.

In the flesh, so to speak, it’s . . . quiet. I hate to say it, and I’ve thought it before, but can’t they turn the sound up at the Albert Hall? Give it some welly! God, I much prefer the Proms on the radio. Not only can you hear it, but you get Handley saying, agog: “He may have had the score in front of him but never moved from the first page”, and the continuity announcer rustling papers in a panic when the concert ends (“The Fourth Piano Concerto. Nothing more needs to be said”) two whole minutes early (“And now . . . some . . . harp music . . .”).

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?