After standing through 70-odd concerts, the Promenaders deserve a party. If Mark Elder managed one thing on Saturday, it was to maintain the atmosphere of frivolity throughout while presenting an evening of the highest musical standards.
We had the costumes, the flags, the Promenaders picking fights with those in the boxes and the usual horn-blowing mayhem, yet beneath this there lay a truly memorable concert.
He who presents the Last Night has a hard task ahead of him. He has to make sure not to seem patronising to an audience of mixed classical experience. Hence he also has to make sure to explain what he is talking about for that half of the audience lacking the requisite knowledge. Furthermore, with the constant threat of interruption from deflating balloons or squawking trumpets, he must never be dull.
Elder’s dry wit and pointed delivery were superbly suited to his role as presenter. He may have joked – ‘Things were going like a house on fire! ‘ (do you get it?) – but he also managed to articulate a number of serious questions surrounding classical music today. He criticised the ridiculous rulings on musical instruments on planes, and asked why more is not being done to teach music to children. These are important issues, and Elder must be praised for raising them in this setting.
With a baton in his hand, Elder was similarly well-chosen, even if his programme was questionable. The Proms is that much of an English institution that one does not mess with it under any circumstances. Elder seemed to be playing with fire by choosing not only four pieces by Russian composers in the first half, but also by employing two Russian soloists. After Valery Gergiev‘s lack of success with his all-Russian programme at ENO this year, Elder was living dangerously.
Luckily, the music was of a quality that such concerns were soon discarded. Shostakovich’s wacky Festive Overture was splendidly played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the great brass fanfares ringing out through the hall. Only a couple of timing issues concerned. Elsewhere, the orchestra maintained its standards in a variety of works. Wagner’s Entry of the Guests from Tannhauser is a piece of Boris Godunov pomp, and its vast, glittering orchestration provided immense pleasure before the interval.
It also founded a suspicion that would be confirmed in the second half – that the BBC Chorus and BBC Singers really need drilling into shape, for at present their sound is messy and splodged, with unclear consonants and inaudible altos. On this more critical note, the one piece of British music in the first half was Colin Matthews’s brief work Vivo, which is stylistically unsure and anything but ‘vivo’. Even Mark Elder could not make a case for its inclusion, and the tentative applause at its end was telling.
Luckily the Russians came to the rescue. Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s Prince Igor (Borodin) was tortured, his Don Carlo (Verdi – Ernani) tragic. In the latter, he was aided by the orchestra’s heartrending playing, nowhere more so than in the opening bass clarinet solo, which created a vast stillness around the hall. Hvorostovsky’s three performances in the first half, culminating in Nero’s Epithalamium, were distinguished and atmospheric, yet nothing could prepare for his rip-roaring Toreador Song in the second, in which his supple frame inhabited the stage with confidence and his vast baritone phrased and forced with conviction. He was subsequently amplified for Solovyov-Sedoy’s Moscow Nights, and his voice resonated around the hall, especially on that final held note.
The other Russian soloist, violinist Viktoria Mullova delivered a shiveringly good interpretation of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, with delicately breathed phrasing and equally delicate bowing in the fast passagework. Prokofiev’s writing did not suit the acoustic, for the solo violin was often submerged under the orchestral torrent, but Mullova cherished every second of writing. Elder’s approach in the first movement was a little slow, but other than the totally ‘off’ castanets in the final Allegro, the orchestra responded fantastically. Mullova also returned in the second half in a terribly sexy dress to perform an arrangement of Possetti’s Bullanguera. Its Spanish harmonies and raucous percussion rhythms were received by deafening cheers from the Prommers.
And on to the regular items on the menu, with Elgar, Wood and Parry reminding us that this is a truly British event. In a sense, we needed reminding after such a diverse programme, but the performances were uniformly brilliant and the evening will be remembered for its music as much as for its atmosphere and celebration.