Sherlock Holmes – a Musical Mind review: “A Prom suffering an identity crisis”

The great detective's musical life was showcased this weekend at the Royal Albert Hall

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One of the interesting things about Sherlock Holmes is that there’s not just one version of him – there are many, and they’re all surprisingly different. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s written original to Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett’s beloved TV incarnations, past Robert Downey Jr’s suave Batman-like Holmes all the way through to Benedict Cumberbatch (whose version of Holmes marries the character’s intellect with 21st century London trappings), they’ve all brought subtly different takes on the character that probably inspire his wide-ranging popularity.

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In fact, Holmes’ continual reinvention is one of his great strengths in my book – but it was also the weakness of last night’s Prom, Sherlock Holmes: A Musical Mind, which brought together various pieces based on their association with the detective. Some were soundtracks to his big and small-screen incarnations, others were pieces of music that Holmes was said to have liked, or which have inspired his character in some way. Or, you know, that he might have heard while walking past a music hall or something.

It’s a lovely idea on paper, presenting a way into the character’s famously enigmatic brain through his love of music (one of his few humanising characteristics) – but, when combined, the pieces didn’t exactly hang together as a cohesive, well-planned whole. Hans Zimmer’s scores for the Guy Ritchie movies were plonked incongruously with Rossini opera, Miklós Rózsa’s Main Titles from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (above) and the modern Sherlock theme among others, and to be honest, it felt more like a Sherlock Holmes Spotify playlist than anything else.

It’s a bit of a shame, because individually some pieces had a great effect – particular highlights included a spellbinding choral performance of two works by obscure 18th century composer Orlande de Lassus (on whom Holmes was said to write a monograph in the original Conan Doyle stories), and the works of Patrick Gowers, whose score for the 1980s/90s Jeremy Brett series was brought to life with aplomb by violin soloist Jack Liebeck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScULgK-ZOVU

Other pieces did feel a bit shoehorned in, however. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” was included on a slightly tenuous “Holmes might have heard this” basis (he was a famous fan of Wagner), probably to try and drum up a little energy in the room as the Prom drew to a close. Elsewhere, parts of Rossini’s Barber of Seville were showcased because it’s probably the sort of thing Irene Adler (an operatic contralto in Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia) would have sung – though of course we can’t know for sure, as she sung for a fictional opera company that never existed. Neither piece was badly performed – far from it – but their slightly arbitrary inclusion felt symptomatic of the whole show’s identity crisis.

Having said that, I definitely got a bit excited by the triumphant final performance of David Arnold and Michael Price’s suite of music from the modern Sherlock TV series (with that show’s co-creator Mark Gatiss on hand to enjoyably ham it up for readings and patter with co-host Matthew Sweet throughout the show), and overall it was a diverting few hours. But when it comes to uncovering the inner life of 221b Baker Street’s famous resident through music, well… that mystery’s still unsolved. 

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Visit bbc.co.uk/proms for information about this year’s Prom Season.