A Song of Joys [BBC commission: world premiere]
Capriccio italien, Op.45
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33 [arr. Rysanov]
Blest Pair of Sirens
Verführung, Op.33/1; Freundliche Vision, Op.48/1; Ständchen, Op.17/2 [orch. Felix Mottl]; Winterweihe, Op.48/4; Zueignung, Op.10/1 [orch. Robert Heger]
Dalibor – Dobrá! Já mu je dám! … Jak je mi?
Rusalka – Song to the Moon
Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra – Prelude; Galop
Lohengrin – Bridal Chorus [arr. Rutter]
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Carousel – You’ll never walk alone
Fisher’s Hornpipe [Trad., orch. Nic Raine]
Alfred – Rule, Britannia! [arr. Sargent]
Jerusalem [orch. Elgar]
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D
The National Anthem [arr. Britten]
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
Renée Fleming (soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 11 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Over the years that The Classical Source has been reviewing the BBC Proms the Last Night has undergone a transformation. It used to be said that the real last-night of the season was the penultimate one, with, historically, Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony; now that has all changed as the famous and frivolous tunes have been ousted by music borne of better thought-out programming.
Jonathan Dove’s “A Song of Joys” is an exercise in word-painting and none the worse for it as the “jubilant song” of the opening led to animal imitations and a crash of lightning, all vividly portrayed. This showpiece for chorus and orchestra colourfully sets the opening nine lines of Walt Whitman’s poem and although in places the rhythms in the orchestra could have been tighter, this premiere set the Last Night’s proceedings off to an agreeable start.
Two works by Tchaikovsky settled the BBC Symphony Orchestra into more familiar territory. Capriccio italien used to be heard far more often in Prom concerts but its popularity has waned (it was last performed in 1997). Despite a noisy audience, this was a sterling performance, Jiří Bělohlávek skilfully handling the many tempo changes to bring out the dance elements. The arrangement by Maxim Rysanov of Rococo Variations (using the revision by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the work’s original cellist) worked well. The higher pitch of the viola slotted it nicely into the middle of the orchestral soundscape, itself thinned by reduced numbers in the string section. The faster-moving passages convince on the viola, even better in the hands of nimble-fingered Rysanov. Save the cadenza in the sixth variation, which lacked the gravitas that a cello can provide, this arrangement is a fine addition to the viola’s repertoire.
Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens has a surfeit of ‘s’ sounds in the first two lines – a real headache for any choir. The combined choruses’ detailed training under the watchful Stephen Jackson paid dividends, as it did in the careful observation of the score’s many dynamic markings. ‘Victorian schmaltz’ easily lends itself to this work and is a sentiment that choir and orchestra alike managed to avoid.
This selection of Richard Strauss songs were composed between 1885 and 1900. Strauss’s love of the soprano voice largely stemmed from his marriage to his temperamental wife Pauline (née de Ahna), for whom many settings were written. All but the first (Verführung) of this Last Night selection originated with piano accompaniment and were later orchestrated either by the composer or conductors of the time. Renée Fleming made everyone sit up and listen. Her lyric soprano voice is ideally suited to the full-bodied sound that is demanded by Strauss’s female roles and despite a slight disagreement in tempo at the start, Bělohlávek and the BBCSO demonstrated themselves as expert accompanists. “Ständchen”, possibly the best-known of these five songs, showed off the wind section at its best – tripping lithely about the soloist who clearly enjoyed the experience.
After the interval another excellent piece of programming – Chabrier’s brilliant Joyeuse marche – set the standard for the remainder of the concert. Like Capriccio italien, this piece has fallen into sad neglect in recent years, last heard at a prom as an encore in 1997. The BBCSO performed with swagger and a little tongue-in-cheek in readiness for the fun soon to be had. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 was remembered as Fleming returned for music by Smetana and Dvořák. She reflected upon how, last year, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Revolution, she and Bělohlávek had performed these two pieces. Clearly both conductor and soloist have an affinity with this music which was performed with a full spectrum of Puccini-like emotion.
Vaughan Williams’s viola Suite was a peculiar choice for a second half, even more so as only the first and last movements were played. While these were a welcome curio, Rysanov’s performance was introverted and lacked the rhythmic certainty needed in the stilted changes between duple and compound time in the ‘Galop’. John Rutter’s adaptation of the ‘Bridal Chorus’ from “Lohengrin” made a welcome, lighter change to Wagner’s version (!), though clearly there were members of the audience who were surprised to discover where this most famous of wedding-marches originated.
‘You’ll never walk’ alone from “Carousel”, and sung by the massed choirs and audiences all around the country, made, Bělohlávek hoped, the largest choir ever. I didn’t see anyone from the Guinness Book of Records, but that didn’t matter as this was the beginning of the end of the 2010 Prom season, which continued with a new orchestration of ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ by Nic Raine (the expectation that the audience would clap along didn’t quite work), which led to Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!”, Fleming making hard work of the coloratura embellishments.
The usual suspects of “Jerusalem” and the First of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches (aka “Land of Hope and Glory”) followed a brief speech by Bělohlávek who clearly enjoys the experience but has some trouble with the language. Saving the best to last, a touching performance of Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the UK National Anthem left everyone speechless. The Queen, on first hearing Britten’s handiwork at a Snape Maltings concert in 1967 said that she had never been so affected by the Anthem, adding “and I have heard it once or twice before”. Leonard Slatkin performed this arrangement at the last night in 2002 in what was his first proper Last Night (after the ‘9/11’ atrocities in 2001; this 2010 Last Night was nine years to the date) and the effect that it has on this listener has not diminished.
Bělohlávek’s thoughtful conducting combined with excellent programming and first-class performers made this Last Night one of the best for many years. Last year we saw changes to the format with the removal of Henry Wood’s Sea-Songs (together with uproar from the masses!); this year we returned to 1910 to hear the sequence. The 2011 season of BBC Promenade Concerts starts on 15 July.