United Kingdom BBC Proms Live – Viennese Night: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Robert Murray (tenor). BBC Concert Orchestra / Bramwell Tovey (conductor). Streamed live from the Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2020. (MMB)
Franz Lehár – The Merry Widow – Overture; Giuditta – ‘Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss’; Paganini – Prelude and Violin Solo; Gold and Silver Waltz; The Merry Widow – ‘Vilja’; The Land of Smiles – ‘You are my heart’s delight’
Oscar Straus – The Chocolate Soldier Duet: ‘Don’t’ eat them all, you greedy man’
Emmerich Kálmán – Countess Maritza – ‚Wenn es Abend wird … Grüss mir mein Wien‘
Johann Strauss II – Die Fledermaus – Overture and Watch Duet; Pizzicato Polka
Richard Heuberger – Der Opernball – Rendezvous-Duettino (‘Im Chambre Séparée‘)
We are halfway through the reduced, somewhat strange season of BBC Proms of 2020. As everyone knows the normal Proms festival was cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Besides having streamed a wide variety of past Proms gems on iPlayer and BBC Four, the organisers were determined to have a brief season (approximately two weeks) of live Proms. They are all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, some on BBC Four and all available on iPlayer as well. This Prom – as the name indicates – is a celebration of Viennese music in general and of Franz Lehár’s in particular, as 2020 marks 150 years since his birth.
Introduced by Petroc Trelawny the concert began with the Overture to Lehár’s The Merry Widow. Bramwell Tovey looked rather fragile on the podium and for a split second I thought he was unwell but once he began conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra – all suitably scattered across the stage and the choir of the Albert Hall to stick to social distancing – he transformed. Tovey is a charismatic conductor, his rapport with the musicians was noticeable and the orchestra responded with a rather lovely rendition of The Merry Widow’s Overture. Incidentally, this Overture didn’t exist to start with. According to Trelawny, the operetta was played in 1905 for the first 399 performances without an overture. Then, for the 400th performance Lehár composed what we heard now. This was followed by a piece by Oscar Straus (apparently, he deliberately dropped the second ‘s’ in his name in order not to be confused with the famous Strauss family, as they weren’t related). It was a duet from The Chocolate Soldier sung by soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor Robert Murray with humour and style. It was well acted and sung with conviction. Murray even appeared on stage with a real pack of chocolates.
Sophie Bevan in very fine voice then sang the famous ‘Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss’ from Lehár’s Giuditta in the German original, with excellent enunciation and clear diction. Robert Murray returned to the stage to sing ‘Wenn es Abend wird … Grüss mir mein Wien’, an aria full of longing and nostalgia from Kálmán’s Countess Maritza. It was suitably moving and it struck a chord, at least with me, as at the moment it is nearly impossible to travel anywhere and thus all one can do is long for places one loves and used to be able to travel to any time.
The BBC Concert Orchestra led by Bramwell Tovey then performed the vibrant Overture to Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. It was a spirited, lively rendition and the enjoyment of the orchestra was palpable – a welcoming contrast to the somehow sad ‘Wenn es Abend wird … Grüss mir mein Wien’, which Murray had delivered so touchingly.
We then had the Prelude and Violin Solo from Lehár’s biographical operetta Paganini. The violin solo was beautifully performed by lead violin Nathaniel Anderson-Frank. He delivered a heartfelt melodic rendition of the piece, executed with precision and some virtuosity. It gained him enthusiastic applause from his fellow musicians and Tovey. Bevan and Murray then returned to the stage for the Rendezvous-Duettino (‘Im Chambre Séparée’) from Heuberger’s Der Opernball. Wearing masks (as in a masked ball and not Covid!) the two singers gave an attractive, suitably seductive rendition of this rather pretty little gem in an English translation. After which, we returned to Lehár for three famous pieces: First, Gold and Silver Waltz brilliantly performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra led by Tovey. Second, the lovely ‘Vilja’ from The Merry Widow exceptionally sung by Sophie Bevan. Here, she really showed what she can do – her high notes were solid, elegant, and warm, her legato excellent and her pianissimo exquisite and thoroughly well executed. Third and Lehár’s final piece, came ‘You are my heart’s delight’ (or ‘Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’ in the German original) from The Land of Smiles. This is a showstopper for a tenor and although Robert Murray’s rendition was exceptionally good, I felt he didn’t quite live up to it. His voice was a little tight on a couple of the highest notes and there was an ever so slight wobble on a few occasions. Nevertheless, it was still a pleasant, satisfying performance.
The concert ended with two pieces by Johann Strauss II. First the charming Pizzicato Polka – performed by the strings of the BBC Concert Orchestra. It was obvious they relished playing the piece and everyone appeared to have fun. When they finished the other sections of the orchestra and Tovey enthusiastically applauded. The last piece of the evening was the Watch Duet from Die Fledermaus, exceptionally well delivered, with humour and spiritedness, by Bevan and Murray.
The Viennese Night Prom was undoubtedly a happy occasion and a lovely evening of light, colourful, and merry music. It was sad to see the Royal Albert Hall empty, without its usually lively, vibrant, enthusiastic, and energetic audience during the Proms. If you have ever attended the Proms live in person in the past, you’ll know exactly what I mean. However, the orchestra and their conductor tried and succeeded in creating a bit of the marvellous atmosphere, as they wholeheartedly applauded themselves and the singers after each piece – and not just the two I mentioned above – giving us at home a little taste of the usual magic.
For more about the BBC Proms click here.