The Last Night of the BBC Proms is a quintessentially British institution like no other and the TV coverage doesn’t do full justice to the extraordinary atmosphere inside the Royal Albert Hall or the sheer frisson of thousands of voices lustily singing along to the likes of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory. Musically, however, the programme boasted a bewilderingly eclectic mish-mash of genres – ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and every shade in between. Whilst one can appreciate the well-meaning aim of trying to provide something for every palate, it made for a rather disjointed evening – particularly in the second half, where the average length of each piece was about 3 minutes and the pauses in between felt almost as long. Stop, start, stop, start…..
The more ‘serious’ first half of the concert began with the world premiere of Eleanor Alberga’s specially commissioned Arise, Athena!, which started promisingly but after a rousing, dramatic first entry for the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus seemed to lose focus and direction. Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor then performed the most substantial work of the evening, a spirited and stylish rendition of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.2 in F major; impressing with his lightness of touch, particularly in the expressive tranquility of the second movement. Arvo Pärt’s Credo followed, an unusual piece as stylistically disjointed as this concert programme itself, containing moments which sounded like the orchestral depiction of a riot jarringly interspersed with Bach’s peaceful C major prelude, better known for being reworked by Gounod as Ave Maria. Not one for your average Classic FM listener and I have to confess to secretly agreeing with the lady sitting behind me who I overheard expressing a wish for “Less of this stuff and more of Jonas Kaufmann please”. But before we could enjoy the eagerly-anticipated delights of the German star tenor we had Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, – a lively if somewhat incoherent performance that didn’t really show the BBC Symphony Orchestra or conductor Marin Alsop at their best.
Maybe as an opera lover I’m biased, but for me the highlight of the entire evening was without a doubt the section of Puccini opera excerpts that ended the first half, starring the aforementioned handsome German tenor. Jonas Kaufmann started on fine form with an exquisite “Recondita armonia” from Tosca, boasting beautifully phrased and expressive legato lines with an impeccably controlled diminuendo on the final note. His “Donna non vidi mai” from Manon Lescaut also showcased the burnished dark-hued timbre of his voice and was elegantly and intelligently sung. Taking a break while the choir sang (or rather hummed) the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly, he returned to the stage amidst deafening applause to end the first half with a triumphant “Nessun dorma” – his thrilling top B of “vincerò!” ringing out bright and true. Suffice to say he brought the house down and it was clear from the jubilant expression on Kaufmann’s face that he had been very victorious indeed.
The second, more ‘popularist’ half of the concert began on American soil, so to speak, with a ridiculously lively piece of jazz – Johnson’s Victory Stride. I must admit that jazz normally does nothing for me whatsoever, but in this case it was impossible not to be drawn in by the infectious, toe-tapping buzz that swept around the hall. The first piece of ‘enforced’ audience participation was a UK-wide sing-a-long of I bought me a cat – a piece of silly (and perhaps pointless) fun which would probably have worked a lot better if they’d chosen a piece that was much better known among British audiences than one of Copland’s Old American Songs. Benjamin Grosvenor then returned to the piano for more offerings from across the pond with Gershwin’s Love walked in and Gould’s Boogie Woogie Étude.
We then moved away from jazz and into musical theatre territory – a montage of video clips showing members of the public singing “Doe, a deer” more or less in tune was mercifully followed by Jonas Kaufmann smouldering his way through “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” – a cheesy love song from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles which personally gave me indigestion but inspired some of Herr Kaufmann’s more devoted fans to throw their underwear at the surprised looking tenor. “Morning” from Peer Gynt seemed an unusually sober addition at this point in the party, but then the charismatic soprano Danielle de Niese bounded onto the stage and sang a fiery rendition of Delibes’ “Les filles de Cadix” – although perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of repertoire for her, given that the flashy fast sections and lower notes in particular were swallowed up by the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Much as I admire Ms de Niese in Handel and Mozart, she was hopelessly miscast as an overly operatic Maria von Trapp in an overly fussy Vivienne Westwood frock (“The poor didn’t want this one”) as she led the audience in a Sound of Music sing-a-long which was all tremendous good fun. But not asking Jonas Kaufmann to sing “Edelweiss” was a missed opportunity of truly epic proportions, as some of my friends on social media have already remarked.
The final part of the evening consisted of the usual traditional British favourites, complete with much flag-waving and other patriotic shenanigans – starting with Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, a truncated version of the Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea-Songs and the first German soloist to ever sing Rule, Britannia! at the Proms. Kaufmann carried it off with great aplomb, even though the low-lying tessitura of the piece gave him little chance to shine and at times he struggled to be heard over the orchestra. Jerusalem was rousingly sung, although I was disappointed that The National Anthem was in the Britten arrangement, which strips away the stately pomp to leave a somewhat lifeless dirge. The concert ended (as always) with Auld lang syne and the spectacle of thousands of people crossing arms and holding hands with strangers – a fitting reminder of the power of music to unite our world, as referenced earlier in Ms Alsop’s idealistic speech in which she advocated the importance of music education and called for greater equality for women in classical music. A fantastically enjoyable and unique evening – worth 5 stars for the atmosphere alone, although taking musical matters into consideration I need to compromise and give it 4.
(Photos : Chris Christodoulou @ BBC)