The Nations Favourite Prom
The Damnation of Faust Hungarian March
The Marriage of Figaro Voi che sapete
The Elixir of Love Una furtiva lagrima
West Side Story I Feel Pretty
Fidelio Jetzt, Schätzen, jetzt sind wir allein
Peter and the Wolf
Façade Suites Nos. 1 and 2 (selections)
The Lark Ascending
Folk Song Arrangements The Plough Boy; O Waly, Waly; The Salley Gardens; Oliver Cromwell
Spartacus Suite No 2
Rosemary Joshua (soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Janine Jansen (violin)
Sir David Attenborough (narrator)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 19 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Nation’s Favourite Prom has now become an established feature of the annual Prom schedule. The first – two years ago on an early August Sunday afternoon – was with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Paul Daniel who picked up the microphone and chatted with Elena Prokina (including a lesson in how to pronounce her name – we always get it wrong in Britain, and probably still do). Last year the NF Prom had moved into third place, to the evening of the first Sunday, and was an American and French night with the BBC Philharmonic.This year, one better still, it formed the second night, and brought an early appearance of the BBC Concert Orchestra and principal conductor (unusual that – all the other BBC orchestras have chiefs), Barry Wordsworth.No introductions from the stage – thank goodness.
The orchestra was on top form. Yes, Berlioz’s Hungarian March was a little too careful, and not really as bombastically martial and dramatic as it should be, but the musicians were well drilled. Next came Rosemary Joshua in daring white breeches and low-cut top for Cherubino’s love song. Off she went to be replaced by full-dress-suited John Mark Ainsley to tear our heartstrings with Nemorino’s great aria from L’elisir d’amore. Curiously, this aria has only ever been heard at the Proms – counting this performance – nine times. We take for granted that the Proms is eclectic and all-inclusive and then find that something on the short list for ’world’s favourite opera’ has only ever been represented by this single aria.In previous years we’ve had full Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; perhaps a complete L’elisir d’amore should be a candidate?
Ainsley off, Joshua back on, this time in a red party dress for Bernstein’s I Feel Pretty (lets not forget Sondheim, who provided the equally sparkling lyrics). Simply magical and certainly justifying the song’s the Proms’ top-of-the-poll. Incredibly, again, apart from the Symphonic Dances, nothing else has ever been heard from West Side Story, save for another Joshua – this time violinist Joshua Bell – who played a suite from the show a couple of years back. We’ve had Porgy and Bess complete, and extended chunks from Oklahoma! and Wonderful Town, so why not a complete West Side sometime soon? Finally, in the audience-choice part, we had a surprising duet, from Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s Beethoven at his most witty, and given a sparkling performance.
The highlight (here imagine I’m breathlessly whispering), was the rare live appearance of that most quintessential of British broadcasters, Sir David Attenborough. As he sat down in a well-worn leather high-backed smoking chair, the front-row prommers redeemed themselves spectacularly from the debacle of their mistimed shout on the first night (when they welcomed Lang Lang in Chinese – before he was on stage!), with one of the great shouts of the last decade: “Arena to David Attenborough. Here you find the promenaders in their natural habitat.”
Watching Barry Wordsworth like a hawk (how appropriate – Ed), Sir David captivatingly told the story while the players were clearly delighted to be accompanying him, most sharing the audience’s broad smiles throughout the twenty minutes or so.Again, intriguingly, this is a comparative rarity in Proms history – tonight’s only the 18th performance – although one of those, in 1955, was given by Sir David’s brother, Richard! The world’s greatest TV naturalist was, as you might expect, a natural at narration; the eating of the duck was delivered with the same matter-of-factness with which he describes a cheetah felling and killing an antelope. The idea that Peter should instruct the hunters at the end to lead the wolf to the zoo seemed highly apposite and I mused perhaps that Peter would grow up to be someone just like Sir David!
This charming performance was filmed for television relay, but – for some inexplicable reason – it has been scheduled for 10.15 p.m. this Sunday evening. Given that this is a work written expressly for children, couldn’t someone at the BBC have thought it through and given it a teatime slot?There were many kids in the audience, although the hard-line front-row season-ticket prommers once again showed their petty ignorance by not allowing the smallest through to the front – an unforgivable disgrace. How about BBC Music Magazine putting the performance on the cover CD?
The restlessness of some of the children in the second half suggested the programme was too long. It represented an (unstated) return to the earliest of Proms – Barry Wordsworth and the BBCCO contributed to the 100th-season with a reconstruction of a concert from 6 September 1900 – the second half was pretty much a concert in itself. Added to Walton’s first Façade suite was ’Popular Song’ from the second one, following which BBC Young Generation Artist, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen played Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. Regrettably the rapt evocation of a hazy summer’s day suddenly induced a fit of psychosomatic hay fever amongst the audience, the hushed opening ruined by a heavy barrage of coughing and sneezing. All credit to Jansen for keeping her nerve (perhaps it was just as well she had the score). She was fantastically confident with her high register notes at the end, but – what with the distractions – the work didn’t take flight.
John Mark Ainsley – this time with white jacket – came back for four Britten folk songs and sang them with the easy eloquence that we expect from him. Finally Wordsworth turned to his ballet roots and gave the first Proms performance (surely not!) of music from Khachaturian’s Spartacus. One would have thought that during the 1970s the ’Adagio’ had become so popular through “The Onedin Line” that it would have been a must for the summer season, but no! Here it headed the suite. Following the various machinations of the plot and Spartacus’s ultimate betrayal, the suite closes hedonistically with ’Dance of the Pirates’.If the concert was too long, the BBC Concert Orchestra and Barry Wordsworth were on top form for probably the best “Nation’s Favourite Prom” to date. For the record, good to report that there were no lighting gimmicks, apart from a general mottled wash on the organ. Robert Maycock’s new-minted notes were not only witty but, apart from Spartacus where a little more plot information would have been helpful, full and informative.