Saturday, April 28, 2007

TV Review/Music - Elgar: Ten Best

BBC2, 27.4.07

Sometimes it pays to be a poor writer; you don’t throw money away on bets, even shoo-ins. And there could hardly be a shoo-in more bankable than ‘Nimrod’ out of the Enigma Variations making it to No.1 in Ten Best, ostensibly a run-down of Elgar’s greatest hits.

Likewise, the odds on this programme - opening the BBC’s tokenistic celebration of the Worcester tunesmith and Wolves fan’s 150th anniversary - being a horrible pander to Classic FMism were as short as those on Vanessa Feltz ordering an extra helping of kasha. After all, ‘as voted for by listeners’ now should send as chilly a shiver up an intelligent person’s spine as the words ‘Tonight - Bobby Davro’.

But all bets were off. Admittedly, the presence of the squawking Myleene Klass (where were the quotes around her billing as ‘musician’?) didn’t augur well, but Ten Best was middlebrow TV like it was once made, based on the assumption that if you didn’t know what the talking heads were saying you’d want to. Paul Tortelier’s cello masterclasses, André Previn’s lectures on symphonic form, Dick Hyman on playing the piano; expertise from experts, simply done on a simple medium, TV.

Sure enough, it would have been nice to have had more about Elgar’s extraordinary and very un-English rhythmic sense and odd time-signatures (towards the end of his life he became interested in dance band music), but surely the job of an intelligent TV producer is to condense a demanding subject in as literate and visually stimulating a way as possible. One of the best compliments a one-off documentary can receive is ‘worth a series’. This was, is.

One of the problems with presenting music documentaries on TV is that the words obscure and traduce the notes. Paradoxically, in a show as good as this, the problem is exacerbated; so well do Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy and conductor Vernon Handley exposite Elgar’s method and thought-processes, the more one wants the excerpts to go on and on. There was also a clip – well-known to aficionados, less so to others - of Elgar conducting his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (that’s i, pop pickers) for the BBC at the very birth of TV. Amusingly, it shows how uneasy a conductor he was, with a beat verging on the incomprehensible.

This is the way to bring serious music to the uncommitted – by emphasizing its emotional and intellectual and historical scope, not the Classic FM method of commodifying it through a series of over-familiar tunes. One does not, after all, attune someone’s palate to wine by siphoning quarts of Gallo Bros down them, in the same way you don’t learn the art of batsmanship in cricket by trying to be Kevin Pietersen. Klass innocently betrayed the coarseness of deifying popularity via size and show; ‘Land of Hope and Glory at number 6? Everyone loves that!” as if the calibration of greatness is how many people consume it.

All great composers – and listeners – are demeaned thus, by reducing their output to mere objects to be used as leisure pursuits, amenities. Elgar’s melodic gift has made him particularly a victim of this, and perhaps Ten Best’s greatest triumph was its gentle debunking of vulgar misconceptions brought about by this populist silliness. As plain-spoken Handley –William Brown become a grumpy old man, a natural for TV, despite his 78 years – points out, ‘Nimrod’’s popular status is earned largely through the skewed belief that it is naturally elegiac, eulogistic. This was never the composer’s intention. “If that gets played at my funeral,” Handley warned with a metaphorical wag of the finger, “I’m coming back.”

More than one commentator also stressed Elgar’s aversion to the setting of Benson’s appallingly imperialistic words to the central section of the Pomp and Circumstance March No.1, another fact that publicity keeps from the public mind. Kennedy rightly pointed out that Elgar’s music owes as much if not more to mainland Europe – Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, even Mahler when one hears the military band in the Cockaigne overture – than to the England he is associated with. Another cliché dumped.

The real surprise, another evasion of the populist approach, was the omission of the famous TV footage from 1967 of Jacqueline Du Pré playing the Cello Concerto (this was top of the chart, since you ask). No, instead we got the engaging cellist Paul Watkins giving a really quite good series of insights into how Elgar plotted the course and the dramatic and emotional shape of this work. This owlish, committed young fellow should be monitored, kidnapped, and then given a 13-part series.

In a week when the BBC announced that Michael Ball will be appearing at this year’s Proms, Ten Best, for all its faults, was balm to the soul, the ears – yes, and the eyes. Isn’t that what TV is for?

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