A Varied and Enjoyable Musical Party Rings Down the Curtain on the 2018 BBC Proms

10/09/2018

BBC PROM 75 – Hindemith, Berlioz, Roxanna Panufnik, Stanford, Parry, Arne and Elgar: Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Jess Gillam (alto/soprano saxophone), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.9.2018. (AS)

Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

BBC SO & Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Hindemith – Neues vom Tage, Overture
Berlioz – Lélio Op.14b – Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest
R Panufnik – Songs of Darkness, Dream of Light [world premiere]
Stanford – Songs of the Sea Op.91; The Blue Bird Op.119 No.3
Parry – Blest Pair of Sirens
Saint-Saëns – Suite algérienne Op.60, Marche militaire française
Milhaud – Scaramouche Op.165b
Rodgers – Carousel – Soliloquy, Billy Bigelow
arr. Dudley – Popular Songs from the First World War
arr. Wood – Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Arne (arr. Sargent) Rule Britannia!
Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 in D Op.39 No.1
Parry (orch. Elgar) – Jerusalem
arr. Britten – The National Anthem
arr. Campbell – Auld Lang Syne

Not the least interesting feature of this varied and attractive Last Night programme was that it shed brief light on two significant composers who otherwise didn’t feature in the 75 concerts and whose music is routinely overlooked at the Proms. It’s true that we had Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony last year, but that was a rare exception to a general state of affairs. And if his admirers should be grateful that he scrambled onto the listings at the last moment, that gratitude may be muted by the choice of work, for the determinedly busy, dry, neo-classical style of the Neues vom Tage Overture seemed strangely out of context as the opening piece in such proceedings as these. If I offer little comment on what seemed to be a lively, efficient performance the reason for this will become clear at the end of the review.

Berlioz’s strikingly imaginative Fantasy on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the sixth and last part of his follow-up to the Symphonie fantastique, did seem to fit the Last Night context very well, especially when sung so beautifully by the combined BBC choruses and conducted by Sir Andrew in such a clear and expressive fashion. This work was followed by three British choral works with full orchestra. The first was Roxanna Panufnik’s new essay to mark the centenary of the ending of the First World War. For this the BBC Singers sang words from Isaac Rosenberg’s 1914 poem In the Underworld, which, as the composer put it in her programme note, was originally about unrequited love, but could be read as a prophetic look at the next four years, ‘in the sense that the women left at home cannot begin to understand the horrors that their men face in the trenches’. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang words from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet which seem ‘to answer and assuage the fears expressed in Rosenberg’s poem’. The two groups began the performance separately but merged into a conversation, sometimes overlapping, and ending on a positive note. The work is well laid out for the two groups and orchestra and in its modestly conservative idiom made a pleasing impression.

Stanford’s characteristically bluff, forthright Songs of the Sea, set for men’s voices (on this occasion from both choral groups) and male soloist, made quite a contrast with Panufnik’s work. It is by no means a masterpiece, but is an effective, well-written set of five songs, all of them reasonably brief: two of them, ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘The Old Superb’ have achieved some popularity on their own. Gerald Finley was a capable soloist, and Sir Andrew conducted enthusiastically. On their own the BBC Singers then sang Stanford’s unaccompanied setting of Mary Coleridge’s poem, The Blue Bird. This beautiful song undoubtedly shows Stanford at his considerable best.

To end the first half of the concert both choral groups joined the orchestra in a warmly sympathetic performance of Parry’s setting of Milton’s Blest Pair of Sirens – the last Prom contribution to the anniversary of the composer’s death. This work’s religious connotations and its fine inventive quality have made it an enduring fixture in choral church services.

Then to the second half of the Last Night, traditionally of course a light-hearted, party-like occasion. It opened with Saint-Säens’ splendidly vigorous and tuneful ‘Marche militaire française’ from his Suite algérienne. Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a short suite in three movements and one of his most appealing works was then played, not in the reasonably familiar version for two pianos, but in a subsequently orchestrated guise with alto saxophone soloist. This metamorphosis was inspired by the French virtuoso saxophonist Marcel Mule. It doesn’t really quite convey the piquant charm of the original, but it had the most eloquent advocate in Jess Gillam, the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. She simply strolled onto the platform as if without a care in the world and proceeded to deliver a superbly virtuosic and joyous account of the solo part. Milhaud probably wrote too much music, and like Hindemith his output is sometimes a bit dry and dense in construction, but his best works are first-rate and don’t deserve the neglect they currently endure.

Gerald Finley then joined the orchestra in a quite touching account of ‘Billy Bigelow’ from Richard Rogers’s Carousel, in which the protagonist looks forward to the future birth of a son, and then has to consider that it may turn out to be a daughter.

Anne Dudley’s arrangement entitled Popular Songs from the First World War was a resounding success, the audience joining in the well-known ballads with great gusto. For the record, the songs were Haydn Wood’s Roses of Picardy, Jack Judge and Harry Williams’s It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, William Dillon and Harry Lauder’s The End of the Road and Ivor Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning. I do hope this performance was not just a single centenary offering, since the collection comprises a poignant mixture of upbeat stirring sentiments and feelings of loss and separation, and deserves revival. From it to Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia was but a short step, and here the soloist, the choruses and the orchestra were not only given lusty vocal support but the traditional vigorous mimed accompaniments by the huge audience. And if the sentiments expressed in the Arne/Sargent Rule, Britannia are ludicrously outdated by hundreds of years this is temporarily forgotten by a those in the hall, for this wonderfully joyful song and the party atmosphere almost somehow compel everybody to join in. That and then Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem and on this occasion Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem brought the ceremony to its traditional and triumphant end. Praise is due to Sir Andrew Davis’s adroit and experienced handling of the event – his mock pomposity struck a very suitable note – and for a witty little speech that was not a moment too long.

At the beginning of this review I indicated an inability to comment on the opening item. This was because the gentleman sitting on my left took out his mobile phone and dialled a call just as Sir Andrew was walking onto the platform, and he pursued a conversation into the first minute or two of the performance. I must draw a veil over my reaction but what I will draw attention to is the inadequacy of the Royal Albert Hall’s (and that of other concert halls’) approach to the mobile problem. The recorded announcement requests that mobiles should be turned off, but it is too soft and ineffective and completely ignored by many. And the problem is not related so much these days to the ringtones of incoming calls, but to the glare of the kaleidoscopic screens as mobile users use their devices, sometimes to take illicit photos which they have just been asked not to take. When this intrudes into and during the music it is a menace to enjoyment. It is of no use that the small print notice in the programme says that the use of such equipment is prohibited when prohibition is not pursued.

As a whole the season has been well-planned and well-managed. But could we have a few less new works? Some this season have been of dire quality, and they shut out the possibility of much better composers being represented. A few years ago the then controller of the Proms scoffed at those who protested – ‘shocking neglect of Bax’. But then Bax really is grievously neglected, along with other good English composers such as Bliss, Ireland and Delius. As we gather on the last night in a display of nationalistic fervor, perhaps those concerned should think about how nineteenth- and twentieth-century British music might be better promoted – apart from the regulars such Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten. Yes, we’ve had Parry this year, but after the centenary he’ll be forgotten again – apart from the Last Night Jerusalem, of course!

Alan Sanders                

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