Mr Novello and the deadening hand of the Royal Albert Hall

Should we wish to Keep the Home Fires Burning, then I’m sure the dismantled remains of the Royal Albert Hall will make excellent kindling. I am not one to advocate the destruction of our built heritage often – quite the contrary in fact – but having seen two Proms this season, I am perfectly willing to make an exception. Alternatively, they could just turn it into a permanent circus ring or a furniture warehouse, either of which would suit it far more than its current role as a concert hall.

As a further alternative, the BBC could put some effort into properly understanding its problematic acoustics and sell specific seats and seating areas according to the foibles and failings that so many of them have, rather than lazily accepting the blanket en bloc ticketing approach of the Hall management. Where we sat for the Ivor Novello Prom concert gave the most indescribably shoddy acoustic experience of my twenty years of concert going.

Given that Novello’s melodies were, by and large, originally designed to be sung over an orchestra in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, by trained voices of operatic scale without amplification, the decision to employ such crude amplification to this concert is mystifying. Having made that decision, the BBC were slap-dash in their implementation. So Simon Callow’s voice as narrator came over in duplicate, with a second relay from somewhere in the gallery roughly half a second after him. Whether echo or delayed electronic relay is not clear, but it meant that I practically had a headache from trying to concentrate.

The voices of Sophie Bevan and Toby Spence were muddied and coarsened to dispiriting effect, making it hard to discern quite how well they had performed. My impression is that Bevan was clear and strong, albeit a little shrill at times. Spence was an uncomfortable listen, struggling up the scale in some parts and blending an attractive mid-tonal range with off-colour higher notes. Both appeared to have a keen sense of the warm, lilting, Edwardian romanticism of the pieces and a belief in them: a belief that is essential if their relative naïveté is to remain endearing, rather than cloying.

Sonically, the Hallé Orchestra came out of it relatively unscathed and in their hands Novello’s melodies, waltzing rhythms and classy but straightforward orchestrations were a joy to hear. Elder shaped them with skill and affection.

The hullabaloo in various quarters about Novello being brought ‘back to life’ (or to the Proms at any rate, if that passes for the same thing) was a little marred by this being a mid-week late night Prom. Had the Proms management had the courage of their convictions, this would have been a full-scale work – perhaps King’s Rhapsody (with its full-scale Coronation scene) would have been a fitting Jubilee-year exhumation – rather than a collection of ‘best of’ numbers squeezed into an inconveniently late hour of a midweek.

No matter how well those on stage performed, when you arrive home at 1am with work the next morning you want something more uplifting than a battle with the BBC’s appalling acoustic disregard for their audience. I had been so looking forward to this concert, hopefully one small step towards Novello re-taking his rightful place in the established repertoire of operetta. I hope to be able to enjoy it more comfortably on the television when it is broadcast this evening, for which we could have saved ourselves £32 and a late night – a point I have made this afternoon to the Royal Albert Hall.


  1. In view of the fact that this was my first appearance after surgery on my neck and larynx for cancer seven months ago (made known to the public in April), I consider your review of my performance in bad taste and take offence. I regard anonymous amateur blogs with suspicion. This review endorses my already low opinion of publishing criticism without a professional editor. Perhaps the person who wrote this might like to rethink their ill-considered view.

    1. Interestingly, in advance of watching it on TV this evening, I’d forgotten that it had already gone out on Radio 3, so have been listening on the iPlayer. The conclusion I’ve drawn is that the amplification did contribute a lot to my poor experience, as is probably evident from the rest of the write-up, with much distorted dynamics contributing to a coarsening of the sound, and I do think you sounded in better voice than I experienced in the hall – and Sophie Bevan too for that matter. I was thinking of an addendum to that effect after watching the TV relay later, but this comment will suffice for that purpose, and to that extent I do indeed apologise for any offence caused. However, that was my experience on the night, I’m afraid; I am aware that it was in contravention of many reviews elsewhere. I hope that your low opinion of the ill-considered views of amateur bloggers will enable you to disregard it. Having admired many performances by you in the past, I do genuinely hope that your recovery continues well, and sincere best wishes for this evening’s Berlioz Requiem.

  2. Whilst It is difficult to imagine why Toby Spence would raise his recent illness in this way unless he also thought his performance was below par, he is of course deserving of the public’s support, understanding and warmest wishes for a full and speedy recovery. What would be in rather bad taste however, is for reviewers to pry into a performers personal life and medical history before expressing an otherwise valid musical judgement. I also rather take offence at the suggestion that the only people entitled to express a cogent opinion in public are those that don’t pay for their own tickets (i.e. professional critics).

    An ‘amateur’ (sic) blogger is simply a paying member of the audience with hopes and expectations that are sometimes fulfilled and sometimes disappointed. I was also very disappointed with aspects of this concert and agree that the production values and amplified sound in the hall were so atrocious that I left feeling like an unwitting part of a TV production’s ‘rent an audience’.

    Having watched the Prom on BBC2 this evening, I do wonder if Toby Spence hasn’t returned to public performance prematurely, but I also look forward to having the singer back that I admired so much in Meistersinger…

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