Matthew Sweet (presenter) & Mark Gatiss (actor)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano) & Jack Liebeck (violin)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Brian Barford
Reviewed: 16 August, 2015
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
From Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) to Mr Holmes (2015), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (fictitious) detective continues to draw cinema audiences and Benedict Cumberbatch’s impersonation dominates television screens globally.
So it was unsurprising that there was a full house for this well-planned and well-executed concert centred on Holmes’s musical tastes as revealed by Conan Doyle, and the film and television scores that Sherlock has inspired. Deerstalkers were much in evidence, even on Sir Henry Wood’s bust, and Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington were in the audience.
The Prom was presented by the ebullient, and splendidly Victorian-looking, Matthew Sweet with Mark Gatiss, both in frock-coats, reading extracts, sometimes seated in armchairs. Christine Rice explored the repertoire of Holmes’s nemesis from A Scandal in Bohemia, Irene Adler, singer at La Scala and the Imperial Warsaw Opera House, and big screens showed stills and posters from Holmes’s many incarnations on film and television.
What does music achieve in these disparate and visual versions? On one level it provides us with information about his intellectual tastes – we know Holmes plays the violin and Paganini is referenced several times in the stories. On another level it provides us with privileged access to the mind of Holmes who in many ways is an unknowable character beyond his fearsome deductive reasoning. Music reflects his moods, as in the particular melancholic quality of Miklós Rózsa’s score for the Billy Wilder-directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) in which Rózsa re-worked themes from his Violin Concerto and leader Charles Mutter provided a touching solo.
The afternoon started with items from two film-scores by Hans Zimmer, arranged by Robert Ziegler, for the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows (2011). These were much-less bombastic than usual for Zimmer and the selections showed a quirky, oddball, side to his musical personality with a out-of-tune piano, cimbalom and banjo in the instrumentation. The spirit of Kurt Weill was evident and there were references to Eastern European Gypsy music. The BBC Concert Orchestra played well if rather cautiously.
In The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, Holmes was described as composing a monograph about the polyphonic Motets of Orlando de Lassus. This would have placed Holmes as a singular musical thinker far in advance of the taste of his time. Stile Antico performed Lassus with an otherworldly vocal quality which just about survived the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.
Christine Rice played Irene Adler in a red-silk brocade dress and her voice of sparkle and wit was suited to two items from Adler’s possible repertoire. ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville found her in fine form and she followed this with Olga’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, lovingly accompanied by Barry Wordsworth and the orchestra.
There were four choices by the late Patrick Gowers from the excellent 1980s’ Granada TV series of Holmes with Jeremy Brett. Gowers was a fine composer who produced some of his best work in the 40-odd episodes. He provided music which not only accompanied the action but which supplied emotions only hinted at in the images. His theme for Irene Adler featured a soulful violin solo played by Jack Liebeck, which owes to Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1. It was unfortunate that audience noise rather disrupted the mood.
The second half of the programme opened with the rarest music, (not the comedian) Frank Skinner’s music for Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1943) – heavy scoring, strong string contours and powerful brass – which caught Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Homes fighting Nazis. Skinner was a composer from the Golden Age of Hollywood who was most-well-known for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Wolfman (1941) and then for lush romantic scores for the films of Douglas Sirk, such as Written on the Wind (1956). He also wrote the classic textbook on film-music composition entitled Underscore.
Jack Liebeck, dressed in tweeds, returned to play the finale from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.2 (‘La campanella’). Holmes loved Paganini’s music and discussed it with Watson in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. Liebeck threw off the fearsome virtuoso tricks with aplomb. ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ from Die Walküre was used to show Holmes’s love of Wagner. Wordsworth adopted a ponderous pace as screens showed images of the many actors who have played Holmes, from Eille Norwood (stage name of Anthony Edward Brett, 1861-1948) to Benedict Cumberbatch. By the end it had become strangely moving, unlike the Wagner.
The concert ended inevitably with David Arnold and Michael Price’s Sherlock, a scaled-up version including guitars, percussion, an electric cello, mandolin and a specially constructed Sherlockophone or “perverted violin”. The suite is effective and Wordsworth and the BBCCO gave it a sense of danger.
There were several items not included. The ‘Barcarole’ from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, used to trap thieves in The Mazarin Stone, and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots crops up in The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance. As for film-scores, it would have been good to hear John Scott’s for A Study in Terror, John Addison’s The Seven Per Cent Solution or Bruce Broughton’s Young Sherlock, but the Prom was musically varied, covered the unfamiliar, and gave the sense that is was put together by people who care about Holmes and his adventures – perhaps while smoking three pipes and playing a violin.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms