Nick Breckenfield’s Proms Round Up

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Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 September, 2008
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Well there it is. Another musical summer at an end! From that vantage of hindsight, I look back on a supremely successful BBC Proms season. In April, it certainly looked good on paper – although one of the most daunting since I first became a season-ticket holder two decades ago. Indeed, noting that – apart from the Last Night (starting later in the evening and scheduled to be shorter than in previous years) – there were more Royal Albert Hall concerts, many of which longer than the norm. I suggested to Roger Wright (Director of the Proms) that he was offering us at least 20 percent more music than last year.

Even if that was perhaps an exaggeration, it was almost true for me, as I attended 58 of the 76 concerts in the Royal Albert Hall – four more than my previous best (I foolishly boasted this Roger my new total, eliciting the skilful put-down, “so, 18 less than me”, to which I hoped my “ah – but you didn’t stand” riposte might restore some self-esteem!). And of those 58, I’d say that only two-and-a-half have disappointed.

Aside from Gianandrea Noseda’s wearing, sweaty semaphoring of Beethoven 9, the only real dud this year, was the one that could only be called Symphonie bombastique, Gustavo Dudamel’s conducting marked a mid-point nadir of the Proms, although – perversely – proving how good a conductor he could be in Hillborg’s Peacock Tales, eyes glued to the score (a hint there, perhaps) in accompanying Martin Fröst’s pirouetting.

Fröst was even more mesmerising in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the well-programmed late-night recitals which also, notably, celebrated the 40th-birthday of The King’s Singers and introduced Kristjan Järvi to the Proms, white-hot in Americana with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Notably busier than recent seasons (for once the statistics can be believed), with the Arena definitely feeling fuller more often, highlights tumbled one after the another during every week. Vaughan Williams and Messiaen were the principal programme beneficiaries, but Wright’s featuring of specific artists were also a success, and notable belated Proms debuts were made – particularly Jordi Savall and Christophe Rousset at Cadogan Hall.

With a high standard throughout, it is notable how well the home-grown can stand against international competition. Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches held its own after the high-voltage Berliner Philharmoniker the night before; the BBC Symphony Orchestra in The Planets carried on the virtuosity from Haitink and the Chicago Symphony 24 hours earlier. Saraste’s Oslo Phil also stole a march on Lorin Maazel and his New Yorkers (who provided perfectly good performances, but not special ones).

Of course, one’s Classical Source colleagues may have a different opinion! And, for the sixth year running, this site has reviewed EVERY BBC Proms concert and chamber recital.

So, heartfelt thanks for a brilliant season. The three specified Days – Folk, Stockhausen and Bach – each worked a treat and, like the longer programmes, seemed to encourage audiences, rather than keep them away. There must be a Haydn Day next year (hopefully many). Which extended opera can Wright choose after Messiaen’s Saint François? And will we have a major choral work in the first half of the Last Night (surely a trick missed this year – we could have had Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony – especially with Bryn Terfel already on the bill!).

Finally some top of the bills – purely personal:

Best concerto performance – Julia Fischer in Brahms’s Violin Concerto (beating Nicholas Daniel’s Mozart and Elliott Carter concertos and Murray Perahia and Haitink’s perfect Mozart and a special mention to Finghin Collins for his spectacular Stanford)

Best symphony – Oslo’s Sibelius 1 or Chicago’s Shostakovich 4

Best debut – Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne – who also offered a Parsifal encore after a very long programme, including Mahler 5 and the Stockhausen’s Punkte

Best programme – the BBC Scottish SO’s electro-acoustic evening – Harvey, Messiaen and Varèse

Best Proms première and overall event – Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise



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