One of the interesting features of the 2017 Last Night of the Proms was the extent to which it did not act as a summary of the year’s themes, but instead branched out to present music from composers who had been relatively neglected over the season.
There were some exceptions to this rule as the programme did include Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance by John Adams who, having turned 70 this year, had had several works performed over the preceding eight weeks. The season had also marked one hundred years of Finnish Independence, and the Last Night offering to tie in with this was a performance of the choral version of Sibelius’ Finlandia. With Sakari Oramo at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, there could not have been a more fitting conductor for the piece, and it was clear just how much it meant to him. One could see him singing (or mouthing) the words, not because the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, who sang from memory, were ill prepared, but because he was revealing the shape of the piece in every sense. The enthusiastic applause that he personally gave the choirs at the end, as if thanking them for fulfilling his vision, was also moving to witness.
One of the main pieces in the first half, however, came from Wagner, who has not been heard from all season. This was the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which the evening’s main soloist, Nina Stemme, sang with all of the prowess we would expect from her. Throughout the Prelude she stood virtually motionless, clearly feeling the music and believing this to be as much a part of her performance as anything she was to sing in the Liebestod. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, who performed the entire opera under Semyon Bychkov at the Proms in 2013, also played well, conquering both the piece’s technical demands and senses of yearning and revelation.
As has been the custom in recent years, the concert began with a BBC Commission and world premiere. This year it came from Lotta Wennäkoski, whose five minute Flounce launched the evening in suitably energetic style. This was followed by Kodály’s beautiful Budavári Te Deum, which helped give the event a welcome element of gravitas, and featured strong performances from Lucy Crowe, Christine Rice, Ben Johnson and John Relyea. With 2017 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Malcolm Sargent, the first half also included a performance of his An Impression on a Windy Day, Op. 9, which proved to be highly evocative.
The second half saw Stemme sing songs by Gershwin and Weill, with her performance of The Saga of Jenny being a particular highlight, before the traditional Last Night celebrations began in earnest. Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs was performed largely in its entirety, which has not always been the case in recent years, but certain songs were substituted for ones that originated in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This worked well because, contrary to popular opinion, the Fantasia has always been presented in different versions and forms throughout the past century. Stemme sang Rule, Britannia! dressed as a Walküre, but it was a shame that the Britten arrangement of the National Anthem was not employed. This has worked well in recent years as it has enabled the chorus to sing the first verse unaccompanied before the orchestra and audience have come in for the second.
Oramo gave a fitting speech, with a few jokes along the way, exploring the role of the conductor in the modern world. As is always the case, flags were flown representing an array of nations and causes, although the abundance of EU flags was plain to see. The audience was in high spirits, while remaining highly respectful of the music, only ever clapping, cheering or making other noise at the appropriate times. One particularly amusing stunt saw a Promenader in the arena raise a parrot-shaped helium balloon during the playing of Tom Bowling. With it being let out on a string so that it gradually rose higher throughout the piece, it mimicked the ‘going aloft’ of the captain of the song’s title.
The Last Night capped a strong season all round, in which many themes that were not covered on the final evening were played out to good effect. With this being the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, several Proms featured all-Russian programmes, including the one from the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, on 3 September. This featured Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, which in the event was never performed in the composer’s lifetime, alongside Tchaikovsky’s 13-minute Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, cutting the two movements that were posthumously ‘added’ by Taneyev, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor.
Other all-Russian programmes included Semyon Bychkov’s excellent concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 31 August, in which he conducted Taneyev’s ‘The Oresteia’ Overture, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor (all four of the composer’s Piano Concertos were played over the season) and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. The Prom on 13 August, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard was also memorable as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (Alexander Gavrylyuk giving a highly moving performance) and Symphony No. 2 in E minor were interspersed with Russian Orthodox chant performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. This choir went on to perform Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers) in the late night Prom that immediately followed, and then an all-Shostakovich programme in the Chamber Music Prom at Cadogan Hall the following day.
With this year marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, several Proms focused on this theme, including the three that were held on Sunday, 20 August. This began with an organ recital from Robert Quinney and William Whitehead entitled Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’, Past and Present. This contrasted J. S. Bach’s Preludes based upon Lutheran Chorales, which he assembled as his Orgelbüchlein between 1717 and 1723, with other composers’ works, and included world premieres from Jonathan Dove, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Daniel Saleeb. Then came A Patchwork Passion in which the City of London Sinfonia and BBC Singers performed excerpts from numerous works on the Crucifixion from the past 500 years, which together created a beautiful 90-minute piece. The day finished with a performance of Bach’s St John Passion from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. The aim was to perform it as it might have been heard in Bach’s own day, so that the standard work was interspersed with some of Bach’s organ Chorale Preludes, Buxtehude’s Prelude in F sharp minor and three Lutheran Chorales that the audience were invited to join in. The optional audience rehearsal was directly before the performance and only lasted twenty minutes, meaning that the concert’s planners knew they could rely on the significant musical talents of many of the Promenaders to carry these off. Another evening focused on The Bohemian Reformation and consisted entirely of Czech works by Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Suk, all conducted by Jakub Hrůša.
One of the most outstanding features of the season, however, was the sheer quality of the performances of the choral works and operas. These included Pygmalion’s presentation of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, which utilised the entire hall to excellent effect, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s performance of the original 1739 version of Handel’s Israel in Egypt. This gave audiences a rare opportunity to hear Part I of this three-part oratorio when most presentations only include the second and third.
Opera was also served well with Fidelio boasting a stellar cast that included Stuart Skelton as Florestan, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra delivering an excellent performance of Mussorgsky’s rarely performed Khovanshchina (in the version orchestrated by Shostakovich), and Glyndebourne’s new production of La clemenza di Tito providing a Bank Holiday treat. In an extremely close-run affair, however, musicOMH’s Prom of the Season goes to Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s presentation of La Damnation de Faust, as it worked all of the necessary drama into the very fabric of the music that it executed with such immaculate precision and technical prowess.
Reviews of many of the Proms described here can be found on the classical 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 concerts in the second half of the season can still be heard.