I decided to set aside the time this morning to listen to the “live” feed of the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the all-Mozart program given by Philharmonia Baroque at the beginning of this season. The program consisted of a recording produced, edited, and mastered by David v. R. Bowles of Swineshead Productions, taken from the performances at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on September 25 and 26. The announcer was Petroc Trelawny assisted by Nicholas Kenyon, author of The Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart. The program also included comments by Philharmonia Baroque Music Director Nicholas McGegan, recorded from a telephone interview. I chose to listen to this broadcast “live” because, as I have observed in the past, I feel it is important to examine these “virtual concerts” from both a technological and a musical point of view.
On the musical side, however, this event differed from my previous “cyberspace experiences” in one significant way: I had already heard this concert in performance at Herbst Theatre this past September. This put be in the position to consider not only the technology of Internet broadcasting but that of the recording being broadcast. As I have previously commented, there are two major factors that distinguish modern instruments from their historical predecessors: reliability and uniformity. An ensemble of period instruments is one of recognizably different voices, even in a single section; and those differences are often responsible for fascinating sonorities arising from highly subtle factors.
Even the best recording equipment cannot always register these factors, and Internet bandwidth does not help very much when that recorded signal is being transmitted. Nevertheless, there were a good share of moments in which one could appreciate the impact of such sonorities on a Philharmonia Baroque performance. Many of them emerged during Robert Levin’s performance with them of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 466, his D minor piano concerto. Just as important as the rich variety of virtuosic turns composed by Mozart (as well as those improvised by Levin) were many of the subtle engagements that take place between soloist and ensemble. After all, Mozart composed passages which, elaborate as they were, amounted to accompaniment for a theme performed by the orchestra. Levin approached the more highly embellished of these passages to create an effect of an intense churning beneath the surface of the melodic line. This effect required a command of not only dynamics but also the sonorities of his instrument, and hearing the result over my computer turned out to be as attention-grabbing as it had been when I was sitting in Herbst. Nevertheless, Levin did not capitalize on these stunning moments. McGegan had his own share, due primarily to his characteristically energetic style of conducting, which turned out to be just as effective even when one was not watching him at work.
Taken as a whole, then, the program was as fresh and exciting as it had been when I first heard it. The only part of the performance that I really missed was Levin’s spontaneous improvisation based on three themes submitted by the audience during the intermission. I am not sure why this was omitted; and, since it may have been a decision made in Berkeley, I do not want to immediately criticize the BBC production team. On the other hand I could have done without Kenyon as the “color” announcer, particularly when it appears that he was unaware of the rich background material provided in the program book for this concert. This was most evident when he only realized that Levin had performed two entries from the Nannerl notebook after that portion of the recording had been aired! Presumably, Philharmonia Baroque made this program book available to the BBC; and, also presumably, Kenyon would have had the opportunity to listen to the recording before it was aired. Instead, he came off as resting on the authority of his book, rather than speaking to the nature of the concert being broadcast.
On the technology side I experienced a few speed bumps, but I do not know if these may have had to do with either my MacBook Pro platform or the Firefox I was running. After the first fifteen minutes I discovered that my computer did not realize that running the BBC iPlayer involved “running;” and the machine began to go into sleep mode. Even though I recovered quickly, a chunk of the signal was lost. Shortly after this experience, the feed died, supposedly because the machine could not support the necessary bandwidth. The player then offered to run a diagnostic. I accepted the offer before trying to restart the connection, but the diagnostic managed to crash Firefox. After reporting the error to Mozilla, I restarted Firefox, resumed listening, and flicked the mouse with sufficient frequency to keep the operating system “awake.”
As I wrote last week, this concert will now be archived until January 10 for streaming. Such programs are listed in the “Listen Now: Concerts” column on the Radio 3 home page. Each has hyperlink to a page giving the details of the program, along with a button that activates the iPlayer for that specific content. Those who attended this concert in September are sure to have their memories refreshed. Those who did not should seize this opportunity to enjoy the thoroughly stimulating approach that Philharmonia Baroque takes to performing Mozart.