The Nation’s Favourite Prom

Le nozze di Figaro – Overture; Non più andrai
Don Giovanni – Madamina, il catalogo è questo
A Village Romeo & Juliet – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Guillaume Tell – Overture
Faust – Le veau d’or; Vous qui faites l’endormie
Mefistofele – Son lo spirito che nega
1812 – Overture, Op.49

Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

Louis Lortie (piano)

Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 17 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Upon entering the Royal Albert Hall, one could see a smoky haze lurking about the ceiling; the reason for this was to become all too apparent during the final item of this concert, which steered a middle course between unashamed populism and serious music-making. What was intriguing, though, was how the programme as a whole formed a strange phantasmagoria, a ‘symphony’ which explored the interrelated themes of love and death.

The ‘exposition’, as it were, introducing both topics, was provided by Mozart. The Figaro overture got things off to a flying start, a clean, unfussy reading by Mark Elder and the Hallé. Jonathan Lemalu, a member of the BBC’s “New Generation Artists Scheme”, sang “Non più andrai” (Figaro’s aria from Act One, in which he exhorts Cherubino to forsake a life of amorous adventure for one of military service) and “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” from Don Giovanni (here the Don’s footman Leporello recounts his master’s amorous conquests). Lemalu performed with aplomb, using his considerable bulk to comic effect while demonstrating his even more considerable range of vocal colours. I’m not sure his instrument is as capable as, say, Bryn Terfel’s, but a keener musical intelligence seems to be at work.

Following a short introduction by Elder, in which he expressed his early and continuing admiration for Delius’s music, we were given a beautifully shaped performance of The Walk to the Paradise Garden, which Elder compared to the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In A Village Romeo and Juliet, this interlude prefaces the watery suicide of the two young lovers, thus playing on the many different connotations of the word ‘Paradise’ (the etymology of which stems from the Persian for ‘walled garden’). But the music, too, is so redolent of late-romanticism, with all those long appoggiaturas and chromatically inflected melodies.

Louis Lortie then gave a vigorous, if at times prosaic reading of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody. It’s worth trying to keep Paganini’s theme in mind throughout the variations, much as Rachmaninov would have done; this helps to follow the wit and ingenuity of his imagination with greater clarity; it also makes the momento mori of the appearance of the ‘Dies Irae’ even more foreboding. Judging from the cessation of coughing during the famous Variation 18, it’s pretty obvious what a lot of the audience had come to hear; as soon as the final section began there was a deluge of respiratory problems. Hmmm!

Apparently the nation’s favourite overture (at least according to Proms voters) is Rossini’s for William Tell. Elder showed a fine sense of theatre; each of the four sections was carefully characterized and even the ‘Lone Ranger’ gallop was genuinely exciting without being vulgar.

Jonathan Lemalu returned for three arias: two from Faust and one from Boito’s Mefistofele. In all three Lemalu again demonstrated a fine comic touch, in particular his ability to expand on the text in “Vous qui faites l’endormie”, by turns mockingly tender and fiercely ironic. Also good fun was the idea of using the Hallé’s principal double bass as ‘guest whistler’ in the Boito: he crouched in front of Lemalu and sprang up when required to provide piercing whistles. Not to everyone’s taste maybe!

So to the big finale – and it doesn’t get much bigger than Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The beautiful opening, the overall narrative, the effective combination of lyrical and martial elements (yes, the apotheosis of the love and death themes!), the explosive climax (literally – incendiary devices in place of cannons and a pyrotechnic display were unleashed beneath the bust of a stoic Sir Henry Wood), and the huge hymn of joy (with organ, bells and cheering from members of the orchestra) – all combined for an exciting end to an enjoyable concert. Sure it was populist, and there were liberties taken, and the playing was not always as secure as it should have been. I had a good time, though: but the lighting was annoying.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 20 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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