Every year when the Proms schedule is released in April there seem to be cries of excitement and expressions of disappointment in almost equal measure. On this occasion, however, it appears as if even those whose initial reaction was one of despondency became more enthused as they began to dissect the programme, which represented David Pickard’s first as Proms Director, in more detail. As a result, the season’s underlying strength – a combination of some clear strands coupled with a high degree of variety – had become apparent by the time of the first Prom in mid-July. Then as the concerts flowed in night after night it became as easy to appreciate the thought that had gone behind the programming as it was the beauty of the performances on offer.
In a season that included some very strong themes, it is pleasing to report that the highlights really were unequivocal successes, while even what many saw as the weaker performances were far from universally loathed. Last Friday’s presentation of Verdi’s Requiem has to rank as one of the best concerts of the season with Marin Alsop leading the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a tour de force that overwhelmed in all of the right places. The BBC Proms Youth Choir put in a tremendous performance, while the soloists, and especially soprano Tamara Wilson, were spellbinding. The evening capped a season that contained a number of successful performances of large-scale choral works including the BBC Philharmonic’s delivery of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, Les Arts Florissants’ presentation of Bach’s Mass in B minor under director William Christie, and Iván Fischer’s leading of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The orchestral colours in the latter felt quite different to usual, and helped to make the performance feel particularly heartfelt. This also constituted the first time that the original Süssmayr completion had been heard at the Proms since 2011, because in 2014 we were treated to the 1996 completion by Robert Levin.
Beginning with Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor (performed by Sol Gabetta) on the First Night, and also including Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major (played by Narek Hakhnazaryan), ‘cello concertos were a major focus of the season. It was a pleasure to hear this beautiful instrument take centre-stage, and among the large number of concertos performed were several BBC commissions, the most successful of which was arguably Huw Watkins’, which was played by his brother Paul. As a rule, the new pieces on this year’s programme were good ones, with Piers Hellawell’s Wild Flow and Tom Harrold’s Raze, the opening piece on the Last Night played by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, standing out in particular. Although a UK rather than world premiere, Reinbert de Leeuw’s Der nächtliche Wanderer, with its weird and wonderful sounds including a recording of a dog barking, was certainly worth experiencing.
Other notable concerts included the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink’s spiritual performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor and, on the first Monday of the season, the Prom performed by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Conducted by Valery Gergiev, this included performances of Ravel’s Boléro, Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No. 3, ‘Jesus Messiah, Save Us!’ and Der Rosenkavalier Suite. A particular highlight of the concert, however, was Behzod Abduraimov’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, and he is definitely a young pianist to follow. The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir’s performance of Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette, under the baton of Sir John Eliot Gardner, was also sublime, as was the Hallé’s Das Lied von der Erde, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and featuring Alice Coote and Gregory Kunde.
Few Proms could have felt more joyous, or boasted a starrier line-up, than the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s. This saw Daniel Barenboim conduct excerpts from various Wagner operas and Martha Argerich play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major before the pair performed Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D.951 together as an encore! Regarding the world class orchestras, neither the Wiener Philharmoniker nor any American orchestras were present this year, but the Berliner Philharmoniker appeared under Sir Simon Rattle, representing his last appearance at the Proms as its Chief Conductor. Its performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 may have been better at showcasing the brilliance of the orchestra than at expressing Mahler’s feelings and messages, but when taken alongside a superb performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major the following evening, the orchestra did not disappoint overall. Another theme this year was the coupling of a Mozart piano concerto with a Bruckner symphony in the same concert, thus juxtaposing a child prodigy with someone who only fulfilled their potential later in life. This combination appeared in two concerts by the Staatskapelle Berlin, where Barenboim was both the conductor and soloist, and one of the two concerts given by the Staatskapelle Dresden, which involved conductor Christian Thielemann and pianist Daniil Trifonov.
There were no less than five operas this year, and these were most welcome. Music is predominantly abstract, and so it is always good for those who attend night after night to be offered a number of works with a slightly more tangible angle. Two of the offerings (the Royal Opera’s Boris Godunov and Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Il barbiere di Siviglia) constituted one-off performances at the Proms of productions that already existed, and featured costumes. Both felt slightly more successful at the Albert Hall (and Boris Godunov was strong to start with), although in the case of Il barbiere the greater humour and interaction with the conductor injected into the performance sometimes pushed things a little too far. No-one who experienced Karita Mattila’s performance as Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Affair, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Jiří Bělohlávek, will ever forget it, while the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, conducted by Charles Dutoit, featured superb singing from Ildikó Komlósi and John Relyea. Perhaps the most successful of the operas, however, was the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Opera Rara Chorus’ performance of Semiramide. Conducted superbly by Sir Mark Elder, it boasted a stellar cast with Albina Shagimuratova standing out in particular in the title role. Giving audiences the chance to experience a rare, but highly worthwhile, Rossini opera, and enabling those in the arena to hear world class singers from just a few feet’s distance for £6, are what the Proms are all about.
There were some weaker moments to the season, although many of these require qualification. Peter Serkin’s performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major was not to everyone’s taste, feeling too micro-managed and hence timid and static for many. Others, however, were very enthusiastic about the levels of detail and understatement displayed, and it seems that on this occasion how one took to the performance depended in particular on where they were in the hall. In fact, the only performance that really did not seem to make the grade, and even then it enjoyed some supporters, was Marc Almond’s rendition of ‘Life On Mars’ in the late night David Bowie Prom. This Prom very much divided opinion, but many counted it as a great success, praising the sheer inventiveness in the way in which Bowie’s songs were, to use the term of the evening’s key arranger André de Ridder, ‘re-imagined’. Overall, however, the Quincy Jones Prom felt more successful, but there were plenty of opportunities to experience different types of music with the season featuring a Gospel Prom, an impressive Kamasi Washington late-nighter in which several soloists were outstanding, and a Prom presented by the São Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, which proved that Brazilian ‘popular’ music is certainly not all Samba and Bossa nova. Nevertheless, two of the most memorable late night concerts were of more (though not entirely) traditional fare, with The Sixteen and Harry Christophers interspersing J.S. Bach with Arvo Pärt, and the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr performing Handel, Muffat and some J.S. Bach and Purcell as arranged by Leopold Stokowski.
The concerts outside the Albert Hall were very successful, with the Monday lunchtime chamber series at Cadogan Hall seeing twelve ‘cellos on stage one week (again continuing the focus on the instrument) and Alistair McGowan presiding over ‘A Satie Cabaret’ the next. The ‘Proms at … ’ events, which saw four Saturday matinees performed in ‘innovative’ venues where the music was planned to fit with the architecture of the surroundings, were also impressive. Particularly so were the performances of seventeenth century takes on Shakespeare (such as excerpts from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen) in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and the playing of Steve Reich’s music in the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in Peckham. It would be good to see the ‘Proms at … ’ series continued next year with the addition of further venues, but for the time being we can all bask in the glow of the 2016 season as the beautiful sound of Juan Diego Flórez, tenor soloist at the Last Night, still rings in our ears.
Reviews of many of the Proms described above can be found on the classical review pages of musicOMH.
All Proms were broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and made available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for thirty days. As a result, most of the Proms performed in the second half of the season are still available.