Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 72: BBCSO/Belohlávek – The Last Night @ Royal Albert Hall, London

8 September 2007

The 2007 BBC Proms have been attended by record numbers, and ticket sales are up on last year.

Add to that a number of extraordinary concerts (the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra were but one visiting band who impressed), and you might imagine that Nicholas Kenyon‘s farewell season has been a roaring success.But there has been much unavoidable controversy along the way.

I don’t accept the argument, raised at the Prommers’ forum last week, that the presence of non-Western music dilutes the festival’s aims, intentions or traditions. For me, the programming has been pleasingly wide and inclusive this year, and the thematic linking threads (Shakespeare as one) are thoughtful and should return. But the late night concerts bewilder me: I can’t have been the only one who had to miss Striggio’s Mass in 40 and 60 parts or Carolyn Sampson singing Bach cantatas, because of the late finishes.

I also balked to see musical star Michael Ball, having been warmly (and probably correctly) invited to perform, use his every moment of media exposure to sneer at the festival’s core audience and repertoire. Even if Mr Ball is bringing a new audience to the Proms, there is absolutely no excuse for discourtesy toward the current one. Forgive and forget, I suppose.

But onto the concert in question. My colleague noted, after the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra‘s Prom, that the Last Night could well seem an anticlimax after such a jubilant occasion. Anna Netrebko certainly did her best to ratchet up the fun in the concert’s second half, as she pranced around the stage, throwing flowers and twirling to the music’s ebullient Spanish rhythms. Her limpid, easy vocal quality was perhaps more suited to the scena from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, but some coordination blips interfered with Ah! non giunge and the top notes and coloratura intonation could be effortful and imprecise. A clean line is essential in this music.

Jir Belohlávek conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with typical snap and polish throughout. The textures of Dvorák’s Overture to Othello (continuing the Shakespeare theme) were crisp yet probing, with wind and string conversations clearly defined; there was also true, spontaneous thrust behind the timpani eruptions and brass climaxes. The stormy Prelude from Thomas Adés’ The Tempest seemed unsuited to the event, but the composer’s fascinating orchestration came across gloriously – I wonder when a recording of the opera will become available. It was, however, violinist Joshua Bell who provided the most intelligent delivery, most gloriously lyrical tone and greatest commitment, especially in a virtuosic, vibrantly coloured performance of Ravel’s Tzigane.

Earlier in the day, the England football team played Israel, and presenting the BBC broadcast were knowledgeable and informed sports commentators. In contrast, the Prom was presented on television by a gardener. Alan Titchmarsh is actually a very engaging host, but I wonder how people would react if he presented the World Cup.

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