The Last Night

Overture – Portsmouth Point
Xerxes – Ombra mai fu
Rodelinda – Dove sei
Giustino – Se parla nel mio cor
Concierto de Aranjuez
The Rio Grande
The Sea Hawk – Suite
Down by the Salley Gardens
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

Andreas Scholl (countertenor)

John Williams (guitar)

Paul Lewis (piano)

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 10 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This farewell to the 111th season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts also bade farewell to two members of the BBCSO. It was also a welcome to Paul Daniel conducting his first Last Night. He did rather well. The programme followed the usual formula.

A scintillating sprint through Walton’s Portsmouth Point introduced the orchestra and its smiling conductor; Daniel and Co. really appeared to be enjoying themselves. Walton said that the opening of Portsmouth Point occurred to him on the upper deck of a London bus, a number 22. Nowadays this route passes a stone’s throw from the Albert Hall as it goes along Knightsbridge.

The first of two appearances brought German countertenor Andreas Scholl to sing three of Handel’s Italian arias. The triptych were unrelated and provided little more than a showcase for Scholl who successfully wowed an easily-pleased audience. Despite a reduced-sized BBCSO the strings were sluggish; a very much ‘on-the-string’ performance implying that, judging by this performance, very little has been learned from period-instrument practice.

Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto has become synonymous with John Williams. As has sadly become the norm for Proms audiences, injudicious applause at the end of the first movement ruined the quiet link. Williams did not allow this to happen twice with a swift attacca into the finale. Williams’s stylish strumming in the middle of the famous second movement brought complete concentration and well-judged vibrato in the cor anglais solos from Celia Craig; a performance to be savoured. The outer movements were let down through a lack of attention to detail by the orchestra, in particular the string players: Daniel was clear in his intentions but an intransigent orchestra ignored him.

Lambert’s 1927 masterpiece “The Rio Grande” was written when the composer was only 22; it’s an ideal Last Night piece with parts for solo piano and mezzo-soprano as well as chorus and an orchestra of strings, brass and percussion. Paul Lewis executed the brilliant piano cadenza with razor-sharp precision, and Karen Cargill, sporting a fantastic dress, gave life to the mezzo’s small part. The star of the piece, however, was the chorus – with all eyes fixed on the conductor and diction as clear as spring water, the singers tripped through Lambert’s Latin rhythms with the deftness of Amazonian natives.

After the interval, a not-too-inspiring performance of Korngold’s swashbuckling ‘Sea Hawk’ film score gave way to Simon Bainbridge’s Scherzi. Bainbridge’s orchestral miniature was written to celebrate the 70th-birthday of the BBCSO and was premiered under Leonard Slatkin five years ago. The piece has improved with age. Effective writing provides employment for six percussionists who play a vast array of instruments, some familiar and some less so. As a piece for the second half Scherzi may have taxed people watching at home more than they may have wished.

Andreas Scholl and John Williams reappeared for “Down by the Salley Gardens” – a piece of magical programming, the musicianship of the two performers filling the hall as fully as any symphony orchestra. Then came an arrangement by Paul Daniel and Julia Simpson of Purcell’s “Fairest Isle”; in the second verse the chorus and orchestra were neatly added to the ensemble.

After the obligatory performance plus encore of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (incorrectly subtitled “Land of Hope and Glory” in the programme) came Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. This work becomes longer and more complicated at each Last Night. Here the Bugle Calls were restored, only this time they were echoed, via satellite one presumes, by musicians from the other BBC orchestras located in Manchester, Glasgow, Swansea, Belfast and Hyde Park – over-the-top showmanship of “stage” rather than “musical” value. With the additional arrangements by Bob Chilcott of “All through the night”, “Skye Boat Song” and “Londonderry Air”, the number of movements now stands at 10 and one, at least, the clarinet cadenza, has been dropped. While the BBC’s wish to represent the other nations on the British Isles is understandable, does it have to be at the cost of Wood’s original composition? Chilcott’s arrangements are fine but are incongruous to Wood’s soundworld.

In his speech Paul Daniel joked with the promenaders and made fun of the Australians in the audience whose cricket team had stopped play due to bad light earlier. The usual chorus of “Jerusalem” and the “National Anthem” ended the ceremonies for another year leaving the audience to sing “Auld Lang Syne”.

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