The Last Night

Festive Overture, Op.96
Prince Igor – No sleep, no rest
Ernani – Gran Dio … Oh, de’ verd’anni miei
Anton Rubinstein
Nero – Epithalamium: I sing to you, Hymen divine
Colin Matthews
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Tannhäuser – Entry of the Guests
Calling All Workers
Carmen – Toreador’s Song
Moscow Nights
Sonia Possetti arr. Barley
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Henry Wood
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs [with additional numbers arr. Chilcott]
Parry orch. Elgar
Arr. Wood
The National Anthem

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

Bibs Ekkel & David Nissan (domras), Stanislav Peteltchits (bayan) & Alexei Ekkel (contrabass balalaika)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the 112th Last Night of the Proms – a record-breaking season with 34 of the 72 concerts sold out (it would have been 35 out of 73, had not the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first concert not been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances: fire!).

There was only one nod to the anniversary pair celebrated roundly this year, with the opener being Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, leading to a an oddly Russian tinged programme, perhaps influenced by the two Russian soloists, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and émigré violinist Viktoria Mullova, both of whom shone in both halves.

Hvorostovsky took the role of anguished heroes Igor and Don Carlo (Charles V) in “Ernani” from operas by Borodin and Verdi, the latter featuring a bass clarinet solo from Ruth McDowall, while also singing rarer Russian fare from Anton Rubinstein’s “Nero”, the harp-introduced (Sioned Williams) aria by Vindex in celebration of the marriage of Nero and Chrysa, who Vindex also loves, so the thanks to Hymen are tinged with regret. In the second half – after a rousing ‘Toreador’s Song’ from “Carmen”, aided and abetted by the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, and the popular revealing of a Union Jack from inside his shirt – Hvorostovsky was joined by an authentic Russian folk-group of dorma, a bayan and the massive contrabass balalaika for Vassily Pavlovich Solovyov-Sedoy’s ‘cold war’ Russian hit, “Moscow Nights” (for which Hvorostovsky was amplified).

There was a popular music strand to the concert, with Eric Coates’s wonderful march, Calling All Workers making its first official appearance at the Proms, although Mark Elder had played it as an encore at his Hallé Orchestra concert in 2003. (With Gergiev’s encore last year with the World Orchestra for Peace of ‘Knightsbridge’, perhaps we can have a proper selection of Coates’s delightful music in future seasons?) Viktoria Mullova returned in the second half, now in a gold number with matching beret, for an infectious arrangement by her husband Matthew Barley of a new tango by young Argentinean composer Sonia Possetti, “Bullanguera”, which afforded the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section a spotlight. Indeed, that toe-tapping piece was the most recent piece in the programme, having been composed just last year, beating to the post Colin Matthews’s fizzing and exuberant Vivo (which Mark Elder had previously led in 2003), the Proms’ final 60th-birthday nod to this British composer.

However, perhaps best of all was Viktoria Mullova’s contribution to the first half: a wonderful performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, the occasion bringing out a more relaxed and genial soloist than I have experienced before (wearing what looked like a Spiderman costume with red tassels) and affecting not one jot her always-assured intonation and command of the music.

It was left to the last item in the first half to welcome the two choirs, playing to Elder’s operatic strengths in a rousing chorus from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” – the Entry of the Guests, heard at the opening of the second-ever Prom back in 1895, but never heard at a Prom in the Royal Albert Hall, as its last performance had been in The Queen’s Hall in 1938.

The traditional Last Night items were supremely well marshalled by Mark Elder, and the relays to the various “Proms in the Parks” nicely handled, although the audience in the Royal Albert Hall was impatient waiting to hear the vocal responses from afar. From my seat I was unable to see the visual links to the bugle calls that heralded the now de rigueur expanded version of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs embracing Wales (“All through the night”), Scotland (“Skye Boat Song”) and Northern Ireland (“Londonderry Air”), nor could I see the black-and-white newsreel of workers during the Coates nor the visual celebration of the Queen’s 80th-birthday year.

Elder is a confident speaker, too, whether in ad lib responses to shouts from the Arena (suggesting those with bad-sounding klaxons should look in Yellow Pages to find repairers), thanking those Prommers who collect for charity (the £61,000 collection will have grown after the exit collection after the concert), remembering his some-time combative relations with the late Sir John Drummond (with whom Elder fell out in 1991 about conducting that season’s Last Night in the face of the Gulf War) and speaking out about both the current security restrictions making a musician’s life difficult getting in and out of the country and the importance of musical education – particularly singing – in our schools. Given his speech was broadcast around the world to 100-million people, one can only hope that his eloquent and necessary messages hit home.

All in all the Last Night is a curious beast. I go because I want to say farewell to the season that has provided so many great concerts. Many who go probably haven’t been to any of the other concerts, and I wonder (as I do every year) if the first half should not emulate more the 72 other concerts, in programming a single major work – probably choral and, perhaps best, British, but not necessarily so.

If I embarrassingly announce that I find it all a bit of an anti-climax, then the crowds streaming from the Hall – not buzzing (as they were, say, after Haitink’s Mahler 2 a few evenings earlier, full of the power of music), but either stunned into submission or simply regarding it as something of a chore, which never is quite as celebratory as it ought to be – seemed to be acknowledging the same thing.

Who knows what themes or composer-anniversaries will be celebrated next year? Sibelius, of course (50 years dead), but Elgar’s 150th-anniversary could suggest that one of the shorter oratorios be a fitting Last Night first half. Even though “The Music Makers” opened the Proms recently (under Leonard Slatkin), the work’s heartfelt acknowledgement of the very power of music would fit the bill perfectly. Eric Coates died fifty years ago next year, so we could have some more of him! In 2008 the 50th-anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death could be represented by a performance in the first half “A Sea Symphony”. I’d even like more obscure works to fit the bill. Holst’s Shakespearean opera “At the Boar’s Head”, hopefully still with Sir John Tomlinson as Falstaff (as on EMI’s recording), would be an ear-opener for many.

Just a thought to keep you guessing for the next seven months until the announcement of the 2007 season is made and preceded by a British Library three-day conference called “The Proms and British Musical Life” with an associated exhibition about the history of the Proms.

As to who conducts the Last Night, if Jiří Bělohlávek (Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is uncertain about taking it on, we have had in the last two years conductors who have shown themselves perfect for the role – Paul Daniel and Mark Elder. Whatever the mix, the Last Night seems in great health and with “Proms in the Parks” gets to more people than ever before. For that – of course – we should be extremely grateful and it is worth seconding Elder’s thanks to the organisation that makes it happen. Thank you, BBC.

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