Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
If you want to know what’s wrong with the BBC, look no further than its Tchaikovsky Experience, a month-long focus stretching across three television channels and Radio 3, which opens with a Director-General’s invitation performance of Vespers by the BBC Singers at a Kensington Cathedral.
It has been so long since BBC television last turned its eye on a composer that three chairmen and DGs have come and gone, there are twice as many channels and the audience share has shrunk to one-third of the nation. In pursuit of a mass audience that will never return in a spectrum of multi-channels and web porn on demand, BBC television turned its back on the high arts and dumbed down its language to a point where an averagely intelligent dolphin can now understand the six o’clock news.
It paid a kings ransom for dodgy presenters and inflated the pay of its own executives way beyond the scale of public service on which it was formerly based (if you think Jonathan Ross is worth £18 million and the BBC DG should earn three times as much as the head of the UK Civil Service, read no further). Successive DGs, preaching efficiency, merely entrenched and expanded the bureaucracy.
Despite its abandonment of arts programming, BBC television continued to maintain departments for classical music and dance whose function was to put up seasonal proposals that were shot down like so many grouse by ratings-fixated channel controllers. Gone was the BBC’s innovative role in arts creation, its live relays, its eye-opening, expert documentaries. Instead, we had a garrulous gardener explaining the Proms from an autocue, an uncritical Culture Show and gush celebrity profiles from Alan Yentob.
Then came charter time and, with it, a sudden urgency to convince politicians and public that the BBC remained true to its legal obligations to educate, entertain and ‘reflect the nation to itself’. Arts were summoned back to the table and heads were put together to come up with a ‘celebration’ of some sort. It had been noticed that Radio 3 scored major brownie points in the past couple of years with intensive weeks, days and weekends of Beethoven, Webern, Wagner and Bach. Television wanted something of the same but on supermarket terms – it had to be a brand name that millions would instantly recognise. No question of stimulating the public mind and cultivating the nation’s taste in the old BBC style. The only kind of composer who might be considered for TV treatment was one the audience already knew and loved. Having just missed the Mozart year, it had to be Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Nothing wrong with Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He was a fertile, versatile melodist who struggled bravely and with much anguish against the musical establishment and his own homosexuality, which he was obliged to dissimulate. He wrote seven symphonies (including Manfred) of which three are eternally popular and the last is irresistibly moving. His three ballets – Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty – are cornerstones of classical dance. His violin concerto and B-flat minor piano concerto are virtuoso calling-cards; two of his operas are regularly staged and he also wrote a host of occasional pieces that contain some of the most familiar tunes on earth - the Marche Slave, 1812 overture, Romeo and Juliet. There can hardly be a person alive who has not heard a tune of Tchaikovsky’s, if only in a movie (lastly in James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta) or on a mobile phone.
Music does not come more supermarket than Tchaikovsky and the notion of introducing it as a new line to MTV and YouTube viewers is wholly in line with the BBC’s mission and can be justified as good strategy. The television season includes Sleeping Beauty from the Royal Ballet and Swan Lake from St Petersburg, both furnished with how-to masterclasses. BBC4 has an opera, Queen of Spades, from Valery Gergiev’s White Nights Festival and there are analytical documentaries on the Pathetique Symphony and Romeo and Juliet by the all-purpose Charles Hazlewood who conducts orchestras as he talks, simultaneously and fluently, achieving neither the elevation of penetrative performance nor the erudition of original thought. Somehow the BBC has got it into its rulebook that all TV presenters must show that they can, at the very least, both walk and chew gum at the same time.
The centrepiece of the season is a two-part drama-documentary this weekend, narrated by the pop-up Hazlewood, in which the composer, played by actor Ed Stoppard in a bowler hat, is shown fellating a guardsman, snogging a violinist and dying of undetermined cholera or suicide while writing his finest works with whichever hand he had free at the time – just like a good presenter, in fact.
Neither verified fact nor fantasy fiction, the drama-doc is what the BBC does these days to evade the capital charge of seriousness, the risk of being seen to be educating an audience in something that might add cultural value to its perspective The drama-doc is defended by executives as the application of television ‘values’ to the presentation of history. What it shows is that television, and the BBC at its heart, has lost the human values of truth, ethics and reality by which most folk conduct their lives. If the BBC worries about audience alienation, it should first examine its own blurring of fact and make-believe, its self-enclosed virtual cocoon of drama-docs.
These, however, are criticisms of the packaging rather than the concept itself. Tchaikovsky is, by any measure, a great composer who has left a lasting footprint on civilisation. He deserves our attention, but not in isolation. His life was tragic, but not particularly instructive. There was no grandeur to the man, nor much by way of moral cause. His works do no champion freedom, fraternity, nationhood, equality or anything to uplift the human spirit. What you hear in Tchaikovsky is what you get: there is no message. His influence on subsequent composers is minimal and during the appalling years of Soviet tyranny his music gave cold comfort and no hope of relief to suffering Russian listeners, who turned instead to Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler and Shostakovich for empathy and enlightenment.
Taken on his own, as BBC television is doing, Tchaikovsky is a chocolate box with few nutrients and a short-sell-by date, here today, soon forgotten. Radio 3, which was forcibly yoked to the television season with unconcealed reluctance, has balanced it’s all-Tchaikovsky week with a parallel dose of Stravinsky, a later Russian master who tempered his admiration for Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre with a rhythmic vitality and tonal quirks that counteracted his predecessor’s essential decadence.
Measured against Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky becomes meaningful in various ways – as a technical wizard, perhaps a closet modernist. But BBC television has no means of testing its Tchaikovsky against any other measure because culture has been eradicated from its schedules. So Tchaikovsky stands alone on screen – chosen by the corporation’s panjandrums for the wrong political reasons, at the wrong moment, with the wrong production values and without any kind of check or balance to suggest why public money and hours of viewing time are being expended on this particular composer, and no other. The Tchaikovsky Experience is wrong, wrong and wrong again. It tells you, in microcosm, everything that has gone wrong this past decade at the summits of the BBC, and why the corporation can no longer expect an automatic vote of public confidence in the products it makes, and the financing it needs.
CD of the week
Chopin and Rachmaninov: cello sonatas Alexander Kniazev (cello), Nikolai Lugansky (piano) Warner Classics ***
The two foremost piano composers each wrote one cello sonata. Both used the languorous key of G minor and both, once the formalities were over, reverted to type and gave the piano as big a role as the centre-stage soloist. Any cellist who tackles these works will struggle for primacy. Kniazev, professor at the Moscow Conservatory, has all the technique but not enough personality to overcome the incisive playing of the expansive Lugansky who always threatens to steal the show. The match is fairly even in the Chopin, but the pianist wins it hands down in Rachmaninov. None of this need affect your listening pleasure so long as you throw away the star-crossed cover photo which has Lugansky foreground at some social gathering, with his cellist a distant wallflower. And they tell us art is non-competitive.
To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]