Prom 16: The Last Night 2020

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Marriage of Figaro (Overture)
‘Deh vieni, non tardar’
Richard Strauss
Andrea Tarrodi
Solus (BBC commission: world premiere)
Stephen Sondheim
A Little Night Music – Night Waltz – ‘The Glamorous Life’
Jean Sibelius
Impromptu for strings
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Errollyn Wallen
Jerusalem – Our clouded hills (BBC commission: world premiere)
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs

  1. The Saucy Arethusa
  2. Tom Bowling
  3. Jack’s the Lad
  4. Sequence of sea songs from around the UK
  5. See, the conqu’ring hero comes
  6. Rule, Britannia!

Edward Elgar
Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (arr. Anne Dudley)
Richard Rodgers
Carousel – ‘You’ll never walk alone’
Hubert Parry
Arr. Britten
The National Anthem

Golda Schultz (soprano)
Nicola Benedetti (violin)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Dalia Stasevska

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 12 September, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With 300 musicians reduced to just 65, a socially distanced audience viewing from the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, and the BBC Singers scattered about the stalls where, in times past, the seats would have been filled paying guests, this was always going to be a very different event. Complaints abounded prior to the last night; at how having a sung version of Jerusalem and Rule, Britannia! was necessary to maintain the fabric of ‘the last night’– what tosh, the fabric of ‘the last night’ was torn apart in March 2020 when the lights went out in theatres and concert halls up and down the country. The BBC capitulated and tonight was the culmination of a truncated season of sixteen live events – some magnificent – at the end of a period that we probably will all wish to forget as soon as possible.

Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska stood upon a podium bedecked in multicoloured ribbons and an ‘L’ plate, no doubt, to draw attention to this being her first time. Though this may be her first visit to the Last Night podium, she is no rookie as a brightly vigorous overture from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro ensued.

Immediately after, Susanna’s aria from the same opera’s final act was performed by the first of tonight’s two soloists – South African soprano Golda Schultz. A tender, lilting waltz that was sensitively sung and accompanied in equal measure and the first of two consecutive pieces to be sung by Schultz – the second, Strauss’s Morgen! followed.

Written as one of four songs, Opus 27, and a wedding present for his wife Pauline to words by John Henry Mackay, Strauss’s original for violin and piano, here was presented in the composer’s small orchestra arrangement of three-year’s later. The BBCSO’s leader, Igor Yuzefovich played the part for solo violin. As magical as the opening is, there could be nothing that could have prepared us for the emotional yearning of Golda Schultz’s opening stanza – “Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen” (and tomorrow the sun will shine again). It was as if all the sadness and heartache of the recent months of pandemic were compressed into a single phrase of hope.

Continuing the theme, Andrea Tarrodi’s Solus, receiving its world premiere, explicitly comments upon the shadow of COVID-19 and the times in which we currently find ourselves. In a video interview broadcast just before the performance, Tarrodi, from her home in Stockholm, explained how the piece starts with a dark tremolo on the timpani and in the lower strings. A ‘virus’ develops in the flutes and clarinets, growing throughout the orchestra until it takes over building to a climatic forte-fortissimo chord. Here I was reminded of the ‘Dance of the Earth’ at the end of the first part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – whether this was a deliberate reference by the composer I don’t know, but it is convincing and, in the light of the music’s theme, quite appropriate. As with the Stravinsky, slow oscillating chords follows; here, leading the music “out into wild nature, where we hear the birds sing…”.

Not for the first time at a ‘Last night’ the music of Broadway composer Steven Sondheim, and in particular his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music” was heard. The Night Waltz, that becomes the overture continued without a break into ‘The Glamourous Life’ – possibly the second most well-known song after ‘Send in the Clowns’. Here we saw just how talented and versatile Golda Schultz is – singing with a swagger and an east-coast accent that was spot on. Excellent!

Dalia Stasevska is married to the Finnish musician Lauri Porra who is the great-grandson of Jean Sibelius, so it would have been questionable programming to omit the Finnish composer from this last-night programme. Remarkably receiving its first performance at the Proms, the Impromptu for Strings was, like the Strauss heard earlier, written for violin and piano, but arranged a year later, in 1894, for string orchestra. Gentle pulsating chords in the lower strings formed a bed upon which the muted violins of the BBCSO gave a most tender performance.

Just before the traditional ‘whistle’ where the serious music ends and the fun begins, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, written just before the start of the first world war, continued the mellow tone set by Sibelius immediately before. Nicola Benedetti stepped in at the last minute to take over from Lisa Batiashvili who was unwell. This might have explained the apparent disconnect between soloist and orchestra. Chosen as the nation’s favourite piece of music in Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs poll, The Lark Ascending continues a theme having started life as a piece for piano and violin before being rescored for larger forces – here solo violin and chamber orchestra. With a few timing issues, this performance gave the impression that because the music is such standard repertoire, less rehearsal time was spared than was actually necessary.

After Jerusalem’s first performance, Parry withdrew his support for the commissioning “Fight for Right” organisation, instead wishing it to become the Women Voters’ hymn, and later to become the hymn of the Women’s Institutes where it is sung to this day. Composer Errolyn Wallen has loved this hymn since childhood, in particular in Elgar’s arrangement (self-evident from the second verse) however she has needed to reconceive this piece in smaller terms; “I don’t have a tuba, a bass trombone or a bass drum…but I do have the organ” she says. Ever versatile Golda Schultz sings Parry’s melody and more besides. Whether Errolyn Wallen’s take on Parry’s Jerusalem was supposed to be a replacement is not known, however, there is something immediately appealing in this reimagining of a well-known part of the Proms.

To the beginning of finale and the start of the end of the Proms 2020. The Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (using bass-clarinet rather than euphonium) was quite different. There were no promenaders to goad the conductor in the hornpipe, no horns, whistles and claxons to accompany the Saucy Arethusa and no balloons spiralling to the ceiling in Tom Bowling. We got to hear Henry Wood’s joke at the end of the hornpipe (where he removes bars from the tune to beat the promenaders) but, without the racing, stamping and clapping that usually accompanies the last night performance, the joke falls a bit flat. Leader Igor Yuzefovich and principal flute Daniel Pailthorpe did up the ante in some skilfully ornamented solos, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Keeping to what has become a last-night tradition of including pieces from around the British Isles, we heard a lone piper from Dundee, a folk singer and string group from Tenby and an Irish jig from Belfast. All good things in themselves, and probably in keeping with Sir Henry’s music for the masses.

Rule, Britannia! followed by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March, the latter started too fast before Stasevska put on the breaks, worked less well than earlier pieces this evening. The BBC singers were stood behind the conductor and sat a distance apart that made timing, especially in the male verse of Rule, Britannia!, difficult. Elgar’s celebratory march, in an arrangement by Anne Dudley for slimmed down forces that made the best of an impossible job, seemed neutered. Perhaps the BBC were right in their original decision to reconceive the last night for the forces that they actually had at their disposal.

Then on to a final message of hope, ‘You’ll never walk alone’ from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. This was a splendid arrangement by Ian Tracey with the BBC singers and Golda Schultz taking centre stage the first time around, then, when repeated, with the addition of the orchestra. I would question the positioning of this piece lest we get ourselves into a spiral of self-pity. The usual Pomp and Circumstance March followed by Jerusalem would, I feel, work better – especially when sung in the original Parry version for chorus and organ as it was here.

And finally, to what has now become a tradition – the National Anthem in an arrangement by Benjamin Britten written for the Leeds Festival in 1961. The arrangement is sublime and a fitting end to any Proms season, as it has been for some years now. There was no Auld Lang Syne at the end; no clasping of hands; no hugging until we meet again; no tak’in a cup o’kindness. This was a subdued ending to an altogether different Proms season. I hope for all our sakes a return to normality in 2021. Until then, stay safe, cover your face and listen to great music.

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