|Reviewed by Chris Caspell
Last Night of the Proms, 2015, London, Royal Albert Hall
Prom 76: Marin Alsop conducts The Last Night of the Proms with Benjamin Grosvenor, Jonas Kaufmann and Danielle de Niese
Dedicated to a “just, moderate and peaceful society” – as per Marin Alsop’s
second-half speech – the Last Night of the Proms 2015 accentuated a
transatlantic flavour that included music by American composers James P.
Johnson, George Gershwin and Morton Gould, as well as a BBC commission to
start the concert, by Jamaican-born Eleanor Alberga.
three-minute piece is largely tonal and in a soundworld that is more than
familiar (‘Daybreak’ from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé springs to mind), the
full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the choruses were used to good
effect. Bubbling woodwinds awaken the world before the music becomes more
agitated as “humanity calls on Athena to bring wisdom and music to the
world.” A brief dally into atonality ensues before quickly returning to the
diatonic chromaticism of the start. Enjoyable enough, Arise, Athena! is
probably too short and derivative to become an addition to the repertoire.
In the first of his appearances Benjamin Grosvenor’s thrilling account
of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto went a long way to explain why the
23-year-old is in such high demand. A sprightly first movement gave way to a
more thoughtful second – delicately accompanied by the strings, with
Grosvenor turning his head and listening intently as though he were playing
chamber music. Sparkling and brilliant, Grosvenor saw off the finale with
virtuosity to end an immaculate performance.
Arvo Pärt’s Credo was
given its premiere in 1968 at a time when the Soviet ideologues were
stamping down hard on challenges to their rule. Despite the composer’s
protestations that the work had no political subtext, Credo was banned for
over ten years. It mixes Baroque-style harmonies (largely based upon the
C-major Prelude from Book I of J. S. Bach’s The Well-tempered Clavier,
Elizabeth Burley at the piano) with choral and orchestral improvisations.
Quite different from Pärt’s later oeuvre Credo is a compelling listen. A big
‘thumbs-up’ to the chorus at the end from Alsop said all that needed to be
said – awesome!
The only piece in the first half to show-off the
BBCSO in all its finery, Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
did not disappoint. Apart from an over-eager bass-clarinet, the orchestra
didn’t put a foot wrong in a rendition that mixed poise with humour.
Before the interval Jonas Kaufmann offered some Puccini, but the three arias
suffered from him being too far forward of Alsop, which meant, at times,
that singer and orchestra parted company. Why the BBC did not think to
include a camera and video monitor to transmit Alsop’s beat (as in the
Sinatra Prom) is hard to fathom.
More than usual, visual stimulus was
more of a feature in the second half. In this version for orchestra
(arranger unnamed) of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride, a cue from the
small-band original was taken as instrumentalists, including the strings,
stood to take solos, and brought Grosvenor back to the stage, not as
soloist, but as one of the ensemble.
‘I bought me a cat’ from Aaron
Copland’s Old American Songs was more a feat of technology than musicality
as the RAH chorus and audience first greeted the four park venues before
singing the first two verses. Next the BBC Concert Orchestra and the crowd
in Hyde Park sang a verse, then, in turn, Swansea, Belfast and Glasgow – the
latter, embracing regional differences, bought a “coo” rather than a “cow”.
Finally we were back to the RAH – horse, pig, hen, goose, duck and cat all
After the potential for everything to go horribly wrong
was averted, it was a comparatively easy job for Grosvenor to play his
Steinway. With the rest of the hall in darkness Grosvenor’s very personal
portrayal of the Gershwin classic ‘Love walked in’, as arranged by Percy
Grainger, gave the impression that he was playing for his own amusement. A
skilfully accomplished performance of Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude
Kaufmann’s return to sing Lehár’s ‘You are My Heart’s
Delight’ (to give it its more familiar title) was a triumph. The audience,
now in boisterous party mood, was not keen to settle, despite the calming
influence of ‘Morning’ from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. Played well, the
programming of this solitary movement seemed out of place. Perhaps ‘In the
Hall of the Mountain King’, including the chorus part, would have been more
Fresh from Hyde Park, Danielle de Niese was playful and
flirtatious in Delibes’s ‘Les filles de Cadix’; more demonstrative that
Kaufmann, she did not suffer quite as much with ‘togetherness’ issues.
Music from the movies has proven popular in at the Proms, and to
celebrate 50 years since The Sound of Music was released we were invited to
a sing-along. The party in full swing, less attention than it deserved was
given to Chris Hazell’s medley. The words were printed in the programme and
included where the audience should sing and where not – some chose to sing
everything. De Niese, taking the part of Maria, was having a ball.
The beginning of the end starts with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March
and, at the Proms at least, A. C. Benson’s words, “Land of Hope and Glory”.
Alsop turned to conduct the audience as one massive choir. Making a welcome
return to the Last Night were the hornpipe (‘Jack’s the Lad’) and ‘Home
Sweet Home’ from Henry Wood’s here-truncated Fantasia on British Sea Songs.
The BBCSO starting without Alsop’s lead and her mock indignation garnered
laughter. Sweet as the name suggests, the oboe melody accompanied by the
gentle humming of the audience added a moment of calm before Kaufmann’s
return for Rule, Britannia!, who after being thrown a thong in the first
half, he returned the compliment by throwing a pair of Union Jack briefs, to
the enthusiastic crowd before him.
Prior to Jerusalem, Alsop gave a
salute to the artists involved in the 2015 Season. A record amount has been
raised for musical charities this year, which she announced was then
standing at £107,000. At the 2013 Last Night, Alsop said that she was proud
to be the first woman to conduct the event – this time she was proud to be
the second first woman. More seriously, Alsop was keen to point out that
equality for gender and race was a global problem that needs to be solved.
Many share her belief that music might help but could never solve these
struggles on its own.
Rounding off, we heard a rousing chorus of
Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem to words by William Blake in the orchestration by
Elgar, then Britten’s hauntingly beautiful arrangement of the UK National
Anthem – and Cedric Thorpe Davie’s arrangement for chorus and orchestra of
‘Auld Lang Syne’, the appeal of the latter is that it used to be
spontaneous. I don’t feel that it should be scripted and hope that next year
it is once again left to the audience.