(Half) Viennese Night

Le Corsaire – Overture, Op.21
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 (Organ)

Marches, Waltzes and Polkas by Johann Strauss I & Johann Strauss II
Operetta arias by Kálmán, Zeller, Lehár & Stolz

Dame Gillian Weir (organ)

Yvonne Kenny (soprano)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Concerts like this are the bread and butter of BBC Concert Orchestra repertoire, the nation-wide “Friday night is music night” compilation, quality light music. This Prom found the ensemble more settled in the second half, the first one almost traditional: overture plus concerto, save that Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No.3 is a symphony, one that just happens to have an organ part, and an acquired nickname; but judged by quantity of sound at this performance it could easily be described as a concerto. The appetiser was the overture to… well, to nothing really as Berlioz intended Le Corsaire as a concert overture. Under the watchful eye of leader Cynthia Fleming the violins of the BBCCO made light work of the opening fortissimo scales; the syncopated woodwind answers were oblivious to the super-hot temperatures in the Albert Hall.

As an example of consummate artistry, after Barry Wordsworth had left the stage at the overture’s end, Gillian Weir climbed, almost unnoticed, to the organ to give the orchestra the A for tuning. A hot and sticky evening seemed to lend itself to hot and sticky playing in the symphony with tempos in all but the second movement appearing laboured and in need of a little winding up. The second movement showed real promise and it was lovely to hear the right-hand organ melody that is so often muffled. Gillian Weir and the organ were a long way from the orchestra, and some moments would have benefited from closer-together proximity. Perhaps due to the acoustic of the Albert Hall, the organ dominated the final movement; in the final, over-egged rallentando there was too much organ and not enough orchestra.

Gillian Weir is known for her passionate study of the organ works of Olivier Messiaen; her encore was a movement from Les Corps glorieux, one that takes delight in the unfolding of arithmetical systems. Whether this was the ‘right’ encore for this type of concert is debatable: the audience, on the whole, seemed bemused by the piece.

There seems a different type of audience going to concerts these days, something to encourage. Applause at the end of each movement of a concerto or symphony was quite common in years gone by. At this Prom the ‘new’ audience was at home in the Viennese music; it could applaud, legitimately, after every item. The Proms’ Viennese Night is especially associated with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra; sadly that tradition, along with Beethoven and Wagner nights, is only fleetingly revisited at the Proms now.

Barry Wordsworth played with the audience from the start: the Concert Orchestra starting the Radetzky March as Wordsworth ran onto the stage – late again! Wordsworth is well used to working an audience and his encouragement to clap to the Radetzky March, even to clap to different rhythms, seemed just what this audience wanted.

Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny also joined in the ebullient mood with lively renditions Lehár, Zeller, Kálmán and Robert Stolz. She added an encore, “Vienna, city of my dreams”. Despite a well-rehearsed orchestra and a sympathetic audience it must be said that no one really ‘does’ Vienna like the Viennese: the anticipated second and delayed third beat of a waltz seems so natural to the Vienna Philharmonic. But no doubting the enthusiasm of Barry Wordsworth who added to the ‘standards’ a few lesser-heard pieces such as the ‘bicycle gallop’ that includes four xylophonists decked out in cycle helmets (also to be used as instruments for hitting) and bicycle bells to be played by the bassoons.

This kind of concert-for-everyone is coming back into vogue at the Proms. Good news. Sales of classical music recovered in the UK in 2003; of the top-20 classical albums sold then every single one was a compilation or from a blockbuster film. Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts are a testament to Wood’s vision for bringing music to listeners from all corners of society. The large audience here was delighted with what it heard, and rightly so. As a final, final encore, Strauss junior’s Gypsy Baron March with audience clapping and rapturous applause completed another satisfying day at the podium for Barry W.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 27 August at 2.30 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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