The Last Night of the Proms is ever one of the cultural milestones of the year, yet it somehow also manages to be one of the most contentious. There are those who take great pleasure in derogating its old-fashioned tradition as much as its nod to popular culture, never mind its sense of patriotism and the eccentricities of some of the more colourfully-clad of its participants. For my part, I have always found such sentiment nonsensical; the Proms is one of the premiere cultural offerings in the country, making the best classical music on the planet hugely accessible to an audience who might not otherwise be able to experience it. The Last Night is the embodiment of this tradition, pairing the best of serious music with the occasionally frivolous and a general sense of celebration and joy readily to be imbibed by all. Being in a less privileged position last year and having to secure my own ticket to the event, I queued from 7AM outside the back of the Albert Hall. It was one of the great experiences of my life; the general air of exultancy brimming through the Last Night crowd is incomparable. It is difficult to convey it in words. By the end of the evening’s superlative performance—capped by the traditional conclusion of those thoroughly British masterworks by Elgar, Arne, and Parry—I always find it hard not to feel a sense of quiet satisfaction that I live in such a place and am able to enjoy the best of what it has to offer.
This year’s Last Night was no exception, the BBC Symphony Orchestra—surely fatigued after giving so many fine performances during the past eight weeks—paired with the BBC Symphony Chorus under conductor Edward Gardner. As always, expectancy tinged with boundless life filled the space, a sea of banners of every shade festooning the great mass of the Albert Hall. Though Union Jacks predominate, it is a celebration that invites all who care to share in the music and the atmosphere; there are Irish flags, Norwegian, Chinese, French. Yes, the affair can look a mite silly to the untrained eye; yet with a programme including Bartok, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin and Britten, the sheer jubilation suffusing the audience was amply matched by the high artistic standing of the music.
The 2011 Last Night opened with the world premiere of a piece commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund. It was dedicated to the Promenaders who raise money for musical charities year after year at the Proms; this year, more than £82,000 was raised, and it is certainly fitting to pay tribute to those who work towards so worthy a cause. In reality, the commission, entitled ‘Musica benevolens’ and composed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, fell somewhat short of this honourable intention. Conceived as a short concert overture paying homage to the power of music, it came across in practice like some form of strange cultic chant. The usual nod to atonality ran through it in serpentine fashion, and the lyrics—‘Benevolent music, colour and symmetry, music in harmony…Music is the language of the angels, source of all pleasures the Divine can give’—were undercut by the irony of it being the work that gave one the least sense of music’s grandeur of any played during the evening. The Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music lent an air of formal spectacle to the proceedings, but as good as the intentions were, I found little to enjoy in the piece itself. It is a pity one can so seldom conceive of a contemporary hymn to the art form that actually makes one appreciate it.
I found the next work, Bartok’s suite from his ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, a curious choice for the occasion. On the one hand, I applaud the programming for striving to include a work that is not commonly played and which injects a note of modernism into the proceedings; but at the same time, one cannot help feeling The Miraculous Mandarin a little out of place in the context of Last Night jollity. With its subject matter of a girl who beckons alluringly to men from a window, inciting them to enter her home for the promise of sex only to be robbed by her male cohorts, it certainly brings a novel flavour to the programme. This is especially true given the grisliness of the ending, where a mandarin who enters and tries to rape the girl is stabbed, strangled, and ultimately hung before finally conceding to die. Subject matter aside, perhaps it was unfortunate that I had heard a truly superb account of the entire ballet score by the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen in the winter. This one had moments of interest, but often seemed anemic by contrast. Though the orchestra played decently, the orchestral colouring was muddled, and a full sense of danger was never really unfurled by Mr. Gardner’s torpid direction. The lone clarinet that sang out in a plaintive solo was excellent, with not a note out of place; otherwise, the piece lacked the urgency and sharp delineation it requires, and the end, while frantic, was messy.
This was followed by one of the grandest gestures in an evening of grand gestures; Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from the final act of Götterdämmerung, one of the most supreme moments in opera and the perfect piece to showcase the talents of the evening’s soloist, English dramatic soprano Susan Bullock. Ms. Bullock is currently singing Brünnhilde in Frankfurt, and will be assuming the role in all four cycles of Covent Garden’s Ring when it is revived next autumn. When she began the Immolation Scene, resplendent in a fiery red gown, her tone maintained an edge of steeliness, punctuated by a wide vibrato, that I did not find totally appealing. However, she seemed to grow more at home as the performance continued, her lyricism blooming and her total commitment to the part—even in a Proms concert performance—never other than remarkable. Her Brünnhilde is powerful, intransigent yet riddled with emotion; the steeliness of her opening gave way to a beautifully heartfelt closing. The dexterity of her voice in soaring over the waves of the orchestra all the more impressive when paired with her admirable diction and her complete investment in the character bode extremely well for her appearance in the complete London cycle in 2012.
It is only a shame her orchestral support did not quite prove her equal. For a piece that heralds the annihilation of the gods as a deluge overwhelms the earth and fire mars the heavens, the performance was curiously tepid dramatically. Though Ms. Bullock succeeded in bringing her role to life with animation and feeling, the music itself veered toward the insipid. The myriad colours of Wagner’s orchestration, the pinnacle of the previous fifteen some hours of music in the cycle, were not fully conveyed; the performance struck me as oddly monochromatic. There was some fine playing by the woodwinds, as there had been in the Bartok—once again, the clarinet was on fine form—and though the tempo tended to favour languor over dynamism, the finale evoked the scale appropriate to the grandness of the scene. It was a solid enough account of the scene, if one that never really overwhelmed as it might.
It was something of a relief, then, to transition to the next piece. Say what you will of performer Lang Lang’s sometimes empty showiness or the averred superficiality of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Ultimately, its showmanship suited the pianist’s idiosyncratic style to perfection, allowing for all the electricity that was oddly lacking in the Wagner at last to take shape. Liszt has been a recurrent fixture at the Proms this season in honour of the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth this year; ending with the First Piano Concerto brought us full circle, having opened with the Second on the first night back in July. Lang Lang relished all the sensuousness and beauty of the piece, and if his constantly morphing facial expressions and camera-ready smile were occasionally distracting, he managed a passionate reading that combined a touch of virtuosic showiness, just a hint of garishness, and throughout it all, the untold power of music both to enlighten and simply be a great deal of fun.
The end of the interval returned Lang Lang to the stage, this time to play Chopin’s Grand Polonaise. It was a fine companion to the Liszt that had preceded it, the pianist once again on top form. He certainly dazzled the audience, who further ate up his tenderly shaped encore, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3. Its redolence of the Chopin gave credence to the intelligence of the programming, the affinity between the two composers well-evoked by Lang Lang’s effortless playing.
Pianistic éclat at an end, the excellent BBC Symphony Chorus was called forth for Percy Grainger’s transcription of the old Highland melody ‘Mo nighean dubh’, My Dark-Haired Maiden. Their a capella performance was gracefully sung and genuinely touching. Following a dynamic performance of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra—including an incisive new commentary by Wendy Cope which was well narrated by Jenny Agutter, though Britten’s music would doubtless have been better served without the distraction of either—Ms. Bullock returned to the fore to lead the audience in the Sound of Music’s ‘Climb ev’ry mountain’ and Carousel’s ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ Not being a huge fan of such things myself, I will refrain from commenting other than to say that though not exactly in her prime repertoire, Ms. Bullock acquitted herself well enough and seemed to have fun while doing so.
Though not nearly so much fun as she had upon her re-emergence for the final segment of the evening’s festivities. Magnificently clad in British Valkyrie splendour, she sported a winged helmet bearing Union Jack and shamrock, a great shield adorned with an English rose, and a breastplate featuring a flashing daffodil. Never mind the pièce de résistance—a spear that shot forth reams of red, white, and blue confetti. Needless to say, her rendition of Arne’s perennial ‘Rule Britannia’ lit the hall on fire, the audience happily joining in as ever with the famous chorus.
Prior to beginning that other traditional favourite, Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’, Edward Gardner announced the statistics for the 2011 Proms. It was a record year, with 94% of available tickets sold, up from 92% in 2010. 52 of the season’s 74 concerts sold out, no mean feat for a hall that seats nearly 6,000. That the Proms offers such a breadth of music to so wide an audience is surely something in which to take no small measure of pride, especially when it successfully excites such interest in such diverse segments of the population.
Mr. Gardner ended the evening with a challenge to his audience to continue their support of music throughout the coming ten months before meeting again at the 2012 Proms season to do it all over again. A worthwhile pact to make, and something to look forward to indeed.
John E de Wald
Photographs (c): Chris Christodoulou