Prom 73: The Last Night

Britten (arr.)
The National Anthem
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Matthews, Weir, Ruders, Sawer, Torke, Payne, Lindberg
Bright Cecilia; Variations on a Theme by Purcell [BBC Music Magazine commission: world premiere]
I Was Glad – Coronation Anthem
Jerusalem (orch. Elgar)
Cinderella Waltz
Selection of Songs
Anniversary Fanfare
Henry V – Suite (arr. Sargent; with narration)
Orb and Sceptre – Coronation March
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (abridged and interpolating All Through the Night, Charlie is My Darling – arr. John Wilson – and Irish Tune from County Derry, arr. Percy Grainger)

Samuel West (speaker)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Audra McDonald (soprano)
BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 14 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the extraordinary events of last year’s Last Night it was almost inconceivable that it could ever be the same again. There were some ungracious members of the audience that booed during the second half’s traditionally patriotic fare; there was even a black-cloth skull and cross-bones that appeared during the perhaps unexpected rendition of Rule, Britannia! On the whole the feeling was different – the world has turned and the presence of an American conductor taking charge of an essentially English event was a little much for the die-hards at the end of the 108th Season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.

Leonard Slatkin got the balance just right – recognising tradition but without forcing the long out-dated colonialism that has been a past feature. In recognition of the two centenary composers featured at this year’s proms, the first half opened with Walton, with a Richard Rodgers medley sandwiched in between Parry and Sir Henry himself in the second half.

The theme of this Last Night seemed to be reversion. Henry V was as arranged by Malcolm Sargent, and first played on the penultimate night of the first post-war season. Samuel West added Laurence Olivier-type cries of “Cry God for Harry, England and St. George” to Walton’s ever-popular score. For this listener, however, convincing as West was, I was distracted by this intrusion on music that has been elevated out of the film-underscore genre to the concert hall.

Brightening the first half was a set of variations to celebrate the tenth anniversary of BBC Music Magazine. In a manner that has now been well tried, seven composers (Lukas Foss having dropped out) took a theme from Purcell’s Ode to Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music, and wrote variants there-upon under the co-ordination of Colin Matthews who stated Purcell’s tune and then elaborated on it for variation one. The style and characterisation of each variation was controlled by Matthews and there was obviously some careful collusion between composers for a coherent, seven-movement work rather than a disparate collection of two-minute miniatures. Despite adopting, on the whole, a concordant sound-space, the styles of each variation varied from a “post-Elgar-esque” ’Scherzando’ by Judith Weir to a sweetly swung ’Giocoso’ by American Michael Torke. The whole work was rounded off by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s take on the ’Great Gate of Kiev’ – Great Gate of Purcell; Stanley Kubrick meets Henry Purcell.

The first half ended with a totally uninspiring and unexciting performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. On the whole too much attention was placed upon the direction ’Moderato’ and the excitement that is usually present in the faster passages of the first movement never stood a chance in this lack-lustre performance. There was some beautiful playing by Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, though this was sadly done to death by an over-keen horn player that demanded to be heard above all others.

The second half opened, unusually, with Elgar’s First Pomp & Circumstance March – with the synonymous lyrics of A C Benson, “Land of Hope and Glory”. Elgar himself never liked the words being set to his march, though in later years he mellowed a little and unable to beat them he joined them and conducted march and words.

Leonard Slatkin decided to do away with the single, formal speech adopted by previous conductors in favour of a compere role, introducing some of the pieces. Recalling Hindemith’s “Gebrauchsmusik” – music for the people, by the people – this socialist, all-encompassing style worked well. I felt that I was not being played to, rather I was involved in the process of music-making, and without me the recipe would be flawed.

After Parry’s Coronation Anthem, I Was Glad, which included the middle “Vivat Regina!” section, normally only played when in the presence of the Queen, Audra McDonald took up the compere’s role for a sequence of songs by Richard Rodgers. Like Parry, I was glad, very glad to hear some of the lesser-known collaborations of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – especially ’To Keep My Love Alive’ from A Connecticut Yankee. Too often the lyrics of Hart are said to have tied Rodgers’s hands, and to have been quirky and unimaginative – well a lyricist that has the skill to find a rhyme with ’appendectomy’ has all the imagination that I need! Slatkin took to the piano for another Hart number, ’Spring is Here’ from the 1938 show, I Married an Angel. This was a nice touch, though I think he could have found a better piano arrangement or improvised to better effect. Moreover, what happened to the Robert Russell Bennett arrangement mentioned in the programme?

After the Rodgers we were on the home straight with Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs in a new arrangement by John Wilson. Again, perhaps in recognition of the way the world has become more polarised over the past twelve months, the Sea-Songs have moved inland and included songs from Wales, Scotland and, strangely, Ireland. Why strangely? Well, Great Britain only includes England, Scotland and Wales – if you add Northern Ireland you have to say the United Kingdom; strange but true. This arrangement once again reverted back to earlier versions – using Wood’s version of Arne’s Rule, Britannia. This has lead to much carping as it was not separately included in the Proms guide; people thought it omitted. How easy it is to forget that Sir Henry included it in his Fantasia and it was Malcolm Sargent that replaced that with his own version in 1953.

One other reversion has to be to the length of the concert, which started at 7.30 and finished at 10.45. Value for money? I am sure that Henry V or even the Grieg could have been dropped without the audience feeling short-changed. Finally Parry’s Jerusalem as orchestrated by Elgar, and then the National Anthem – not the standard, loud, unfeeling standard, but Britten’s arrangement for the opening of the Snape Maltings concert-hall in 1967. Opening in hushed tones, the choir alone sings the first verse with everybody joining in for the second. According to one of the choral singers, the programme says, the Queen declared that she had never before been so affected by the Anthem, adding “and I have heard it once or twice before”.

Tonight was a very special night. It was the first “proper” last night for Leonard Slatkin and as an American taking charge of a quintessentially British night I felt that he brought to the occasion a sense of pride in our heritage without underlining the jingoism that has plagued some Last Nights. Sir Henry Wood pointed out the distortion that had crept into the text of the chorus – Britannia, rule the waves in exhortation rather than in assertion. Just one year on from the events of September 11 we must look forward to a different kind of world where we should try to live along side one another despite our differences. Perhaps the international language of music might be one small step on the road to fulfil this goal.

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