The Last Night of the Proms

Carnival – Overture, Op.92
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Vaughan Williams
Five Mystical Songs
Toccata festiva
Maxwell Davies
Ojai Festival Overture
Madam Butterfly – Humming Chorus
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Oklahoma! – O what a beautiful morning
Kiss Me, Kate – Where is the life that late I led?
Gilbert & Sullivan
The Mikado – I’ve got a little list
Liberty Bell March
Pomp and Circumstance March No.1
Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (arranged and added to by John Wilson and Stephen Jackson)
Parry orch. Elgar

“The National Anthem”
“Auld Lang Syne”

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)

Simon Preston (organ)

David Pyatt (horn)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And so to the Last Night of the Proms, one of our few remaining national rituals, no longer just a concert, more a media event. Pandering to that peculiarly English love for getting dressed up in outlandish gear and acting silly, the evening now represents an annual moment of madness and a collective letting-down of hair. To some a distasteful demonstration of nationalistic tendencies, to others a harmless musical party, the Last Night is all these things and many more.

Whatever one’s opinion, the very real achievement of Proms 2004 – 86 concerts this year (including the chamber music and composer portraits at the Victoria and Albert Museum) – is to have reached an audience wider than ever before, 250,000 in the Albert Hall itself, and in addition to Radio 3 and the World Service, an increasing number of concerts have been televised; not always in sync though (either as simultaneous broadcasts by Radio and Television or in analogue/digital accord), and there is the rest of the musical year, outside of the Proms, to consider for primetime TV coverage. For the first time, the Last Night was broadcast live on giant screens to the outdoor Berlin Sommerfest.

On this occasion the carefully-crafted programme touched on three recurring themes of this year’s season: “East meets West” (Puccini and Sullivan), “1934 England at the Crossroads” (Elgar died, Peter Maxwell Davies born) and “Back to Bohemia” (Dvořák). We were also treated to a goodly dollop of American music including Sousa’s posthumous theme music for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

Talking of Python, it looked as if the concert might come a cropper when a visibly pumped-up Leonard Slatkin made a quick initial baton charge through the orchestra, took a flying leap at the podium and very nearly missed it! Dvořák ‘s Carnival Overture made a fizzing opener, one that also touched the heart in its quieter moments, especially Celia Craig’s cor anglais playing.

David Pyatt’s performance of the Strauss was also at its most memorable in its quieter moments where he produced a ravishing variety of tone-colour. The orchestra’s accompaniment, sensitive in the long-breathed slow movement, was distinctly scrappy in the finale.

The highpoint of the entire concert came with Thomas Allen (who turned 60 just the day before the Last Night) and the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus joining the orchestra for Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs to texts by the early-17th-century poet, George Herbert, and first performed at the 1911 Worcester Three Choirs Festival. These settings are too little known and they are infinitely touching, especially the third song, “Love bade me welcome”, an extended meditation on the Eucharist. It takes a great artist like Allen to reduce a boisterous Albert Hall audience to complete silence, but that is just what he did, even between the songs. The combined chorus responded sensitively to Leonard Slatkin in the quieter episodes as well as resoundingly in the joyous concluding Antiphon, “Let all the World in every corner sing”.

Samuel Barber’s Toccata festiva, a substantial work written for the inauguration of the new organ at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1960, here received a fine performance at Simon Preston’s capable hands and feet (the cadenza makes a feature of some natty footwork on the pedals). Yet, while this may have been a wonderful opportunity to hear the restored Royal Albert Hall organ in full flood, musically it seemed distinctly small-beer, certainly just after the wonderful Vaughan Williams.

The second half opened with Peter Maxwell Davies’s Ojai Festival Overture, an engaging piece written for the Ojai (Oh-hi) Festival in Southern California and first performed there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under the composer in 1991. Max was present, clearly in the peak of fitness despite his 70 years; after acknowledging the applause, he ran back to his seat in double-quick time.

The melancholy intensity of the Humming Chorus was all the more effective with so large a choir. Then Thomas Allen (unnecessarily amplified) was once again a delight in the numbers by Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, his comic timing in the latter a joy, as was his little list – replete with references to that well-known judicial humorist, Lord Hutton, and to violinists sporting wet T-shirts.

Before the tiresome or timeless concluding trio of pieces, John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell March was given in lively fashion. The Liberty Bell itself is in Philadelphia and was originally cast in London’s Whitechapel Foundry and soon developed an irreparable crack after it arrived in Philadelphia – could this be symbolic for the current state of US/British relations?

Sir Henry Wood’s Sea-Song Fantasia was memorable for a particularly fine cello solo from Susan Monks before being interrupted by the unwelcome inclusion of “All through the Night”, “The Road to the Isles”, “Danny Boy” and the “Rio Grande” – whilst this all maybe politically correct and fine and dandy for the outside audiences in Swansea, Glasgow, Belfast and Manchester, it made for a dragged-out evening in the hall, and completely disrupts Wood’s original arrangement.

This is where the Faustian requirements of television production make a mockery of musical common sense. Also, in order to bring the sequence to its natural rousing conclusion, “Rule Britannia” absolutely demands an imposing figure to be a master of the ceremony – here, rather perversely, choir and audience sang it and the result was decidedly limp. The traditional way should be reinstated in future. Some traditions are best kept.

Heretically, since the Last Night is now a world-wide event, would it not make sense to drop the National Anthem – remember how we all used to dash for cinema exits when it was regularly played – and to conclude the evening with Parry’s setting of Blake’s “Jerusalem”? Many more people actually know the full words to “Jerusalem” – and it’s by far the better tune.

Sadly, this year’s Last Night not only took place on the third anniversary of ‘9/11’ but also marked the end of Leonard Slatkin’s tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Also departing, one of the orchestra’s Leaders, Michael Davis. One looks forward to seeing them both again, many times, somewhere else.

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