Seen and Heard International, September 14, 2015
Robert Beattie
Last Night of the Proms, 2015, London, Royal Albert Hall
All the Fun of the Last Night of the Proms
The last night of the 2015 season of the Proms was an eclectic mix of popular classics and new pieces, jazz-inspired numbers and hits from musicals, together with all the old familiar favourites. The redoubtable Marin Alsop was once more at the helm and she was joined by a trio of world-renowned soloists.

Over the last few years it has struck me how much this quintessentially British phenomenon has increasingly taken on an international character. In the second half of the concert the traditional jingoistic elements, including the sea of waving Union Jacks, were all present and correct but there was also an assortment of flags from many other different countries across Europe, Asia and America. In her speech Marin Alsop, the first and now also the second woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, referred to the founding principles of access and inclusion which underpin the festival. She spoke about the importance of music education, about the need to strive for equality in all things and about the power of music to bring people together and to create a more peaceful, tolerant and just society. Nothing symbolises this more than the sea of flags from across the world being waved in this vast hall.

The first half of the concert began with the world première of Arise Athena!, a BBC Commission from Jamaican composer Eleanor Alberga,. The music was richly coloured, upbeat and tonal and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave an energetic and committed performance. Benjamin Grosvenor then joined the party for Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto. This was described by the composer as having “no artistic value” but it remains a firm audience favourite and was a good choice for the Last Night of the Proms. Much of the piano writing is light and thin but Grosvenor projected the sound well in the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall. His articulation in the first movement was superb and he played with enormous clarity and brio although the tempo was a little on the fast side and I felt some of the detail was lost. The famous melody which opens the Andante was gorgeous and the movement was allowed to open up in a highly poetic and meditative way. The finale was sparkling, light and brilliant with Grosvenor making the most of the playful exchanges with his orchestral partners.

From Russia we moved to Estonia and Germany with works by Pärt and Strauss. Pärt’s Credo was seen as a direct challenge to the Soviet authorities when it was first performed because of its use of words from the Christian liturgy. The work quotes Bach’s C Major prelude from Book 1 of the ’48 and it is a curious mix of tonal and stringent, dissonant music. Alsop coaxed a wide range of dynamics from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the beginning and provided us with some very startling and dramatic playing. The central section where the music disintegrates and breaks down was beautifully controlled and very powerful before we returned to serene contemplation on the piano with the BBC SO’s pianist, Elizabeth Burley, giving us a glowing and rapt account of Bach’s C Major prelude. Alsop and her orchestral partners moved swiftly on and succeeded in creating a seamless narrative in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel – the various tableaux and shifting moods of the tone poem were depicted brilliantly and the principal horn and leader of the orchestra did well with their respective solos.

German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, finished the first half of the concert in style with ravishing accounts of three arias by Puccini (Kaufmann has just released a recording of arias by Puccini including the three arias performed here). He opened with Cavaradossi’s ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca – Kaufmann’s gorgeous ringing tone resounded around the Albert Hall in a majestic and thrilling way. I heard Kaufmann perform the role of Des Grieux very recently at Covent Garden and I remember his incendiary performance leaving me completely shell shocked. He performed ‘Donna non vidi mai’ at this concert and the rapture and consuming passion of love was ignited once again. For many people Pavarotti is inextricably associated with ‘Nessun dorma’ but Kaufmann re-interpreted this most famous of arias in a fresh and vibrant way, bringing a blend of exotic charm and a raw emotional intensity which brought the house down – what a way to end the first half of the concert!

The second half opened with a selection of jazz numbers, beginning with Victory Stride by James P Johnson, the African-American composer who became famous for writing the Charleston. Victory Stride was originally recorded by Johnson for small jazz band but this arrangement brought expanded big band textures to the music. The BBC SO gave an unbuttoned account of the piece and captured the distinctive blues feeling brilliantly and there were some groovy and funky solos for percussion, trumpet, clarinet, trombone and piano (Benjamin Grosvenor returning once more to the fray). Grosvenor then gave us a sparkling account of Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Love walked in. The phrasing and filigree arabesques were exquisite in the initial section and the build-up in the central section was a barnstorming piece of playing. Grosvenor also performed Morton Gould’s ‘Boogie Woogie’ Étude. This piece was popularised by Shura Cherkassky who often performed it as an encore. Grosvenor himself performed the piece as an encore at the Proms in 2011 and I felt his performance here was even more polished and rhythmically incisive.

Jonas Kaufmann and Danielle de Niese joined Alsop and the BBC SO to give us a selection of popular songs from operettas and musicals. Kaufmann opened with ‘Dein is mein ganzes Herz’ from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles, a piece that was initially popularised by the Austrian tenor, Richard Tauber. Kaufmann gave us a very heartfelt and sexy performance, a view that was undoubtedly shared by audience members as a number of them threw their knickers at him (I think this is definitely a first for the Proms!). De Niese gave us a sparkling account of Delibes’ Les filles de Cadix with the BBC SO providing a flexible accompaniment and rich flamenco textures. De Niese gave us supple phrasing and exquisitely sculpted coloratura and there was a wonderful depth and colouring to her voice. To get the party in to full swing, de Niese lead a sing-along of popular numbers from The Sound of Music in an arrangement by Chris Hazell. Not all opera singers are able to make a successful transition from opera to musicals but the supremely versatile de Niese was fully up to the task and delivered these popular numbers with dazzling brio, bringing the audience members along with her. I really liked Chris Hazell’s arrangement and wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes established as a Last Night favourite.

The concert concluded with a number of firm audience favourites, starting with Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March No. 1 (where the audience gave a rousing account of Land of Hope and Glory). Alsop and the BBC SO then played two dances from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs – in time honoured fashion, Alsop and the orchestra raced the audience in ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ and beat them to the finishing line. Jonas Kaufmann had the distinction of being the first German performer to sing Rule Britannia at the Proms. I did not feel Kaufmann was entirely comfortable with the elaborate vocal flourishes in the opening section – Sargent’s arrangement is for mezzo-soprano rather than tenor, which may have been a contributing factor – but he got more into his stride as the piece progressed chorus. At the end of the piece, he returned the audience’s earlier favour by twirling a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts above his head and hurling them into the arena.

Performances of Parry’s Jerusalem, Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem and Auld Lang Syne closed the 2015 season of the Proms in time-honoured tradition.

Superb performances all round.

 back top