The Prommers revel as the Last Night of the Proms 2023 is a proper party once again

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 71 – Last Night of the Proms 2023: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), BBC Singers (chorus master: Nicholas Chalmers), BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Neil Ferris), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.9.2023. (JR)

Soprano Lise Davidsen sings at the Last Night of the Proms 2023 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

R. StraussDon Juan, Op.20
BruchKol Nidrei
Roxanna PanufnikCoronation Sanctus
James B. Wilson – 1922
WaltonCoronation Te Deum
Wagner – ‘Dich, teure Halle‘ (from Tannhäuser)
Mascagni Hymn and Intermezzo (from Cavalleria rusticana)
Verdi – ‘Nel dì della vittoria…Vieni! t’affretta!’ (from Macbeth)
Laura KarpmanHigher, Further, Faster, Together (main theme from The Marvels)
Coleridge-Taylor (orch. Simon Parkin) – ‘Deep River’
Kálman – ‘Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland‘ (from The Gypsy Princess)
Villa-LobosBachianas brasileiras No.5Ária (Cantilena)
Arr. Henry WoodFantasia on British Sea-Songs (with additional numbers arr. Bob Chilcott and Gareth Glyn)
Arne (arr. Malcolm Sargant) – `Rule, Britannia!’
ElgarPomp and Circumstance March No.1
Parry (orch. Elgar) – ‘Jerusalem’
Arr. Benjamin Britten – The National Anthem
Trad. (arr. Paul Campbell) – ‘Auld Lang Syne’

And so, finally, inexorably, it is the Last Night of the Proms again. To celebrate the end of an eight-week run of the finest performances of (mainly) classical music, it is a unique party – specially this year, as last year the final three Proms were cancelled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and we had the pandemic before that.

Marin Alsop returned to conduct; she has the charisma and charm to be a firm favourite with the Prommers. Ten years ago she become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms and – as she said in her speech – the Guinness Book of World Records has been in touch.

I will not enter the ideological debate about whether the Last Night should continue in its present form or ditch the undoubtedly jingoistic songs at the end of the evening. Suffice it to say that it is a long tradition and everyone in the hall enjoyed raising their voices and waving their flags, the EU flags and berets outnumbering the Union Jacks – now there’s a message! We were all encouraged to don illuminated wristbands which changed colour continually during the second half of the concert, adding atmosphere and for the benefit of TV audiences round the world.

To the music: we should not forget that this is a classical music concert even if, for the most part, the pieces are short and designed for light entertainment. Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan was the meatiest orchestral showpiece on offer. Alsop was a bundle of energy and the orchestra, fresh from its huge endeavours with Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony under Semyon Bychkov (review here), remained on top form. The stylish, dynamic timpanist Antoine Bedewi immediately made his presence felt, the horn section were a particular glory, as were the sonorous trombones led by Helen Vollam. Principal oboe Tom Blomfield played his oboe solos with style.

Next up, Sheku Kanneh-Mason stepped up for Kol Nidrei. It is a work which does not endear as does Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto; for the most part, the piece is solemn, mournful and reflective, reminding us that we cannot have fun all the time. Sheku’s playing was nimble and heartfelt.

Roxanna Panufnik’s work was over almost before it started; at two minutes duration perhaps entering the that Guinness Book of World Records for the shortest piece played at the Proms. Commissioned for the coronation of King Charles III, originally composed for double choirs and organ, this orchestral version was instigated by Marin Alsop. It starts mysteriously but is quickly followed by organ fanfares and tubular bells: flamboyant, colourful, brief.

James B. Wilson’s piece, entitled 1922, should have been played at last year’s Last Night, to celebrate 100 years of BBC broadcasting. After a crackle of what was supposed to be static, the music then pours out at speed. It is exuberant and celebratory; I felt its conclusion the most convincing.

Walton was commissioned to write his Coronation Te Deum for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It demonstrates the composer’s orchestral brilliance and ceremonial style. The choruses played their uplifting part with distinction.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen proved to be the star of the show, towering over Marin Alsop (even when on the podium!), donning a series of stunning gowns during the evening. (There must have been many quick costume changes behind the scenes.) She excelled in the Wagner, her top note cutting through the sweltering heat of the Royal Albert Hall. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana followed, where the chorus did not sound at home, not much like an Italian opera chorus; again, Davidsen’s top notes thrilled. Davidsen continued with Lady Macbeth, here demonstrating her strength in the lower registers.

Marin Alsop conducts cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the BBC SO © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

After the interval, Laura Karpman’s piece Higher, Further, Faster, Together was by its very purpose filmic. It entertained though Sheku was oddly positioned in the middle of the hall, amongst the Prommers in the Arena, and wholly inaudible. I wasn’t even sure if he was playing at all. He swiftly moved back to the front of the stage, thankfully, for his rendition of ‘Deep River’ beautifully playing to a charming accompaniment by Simon Parkin of strings and harp. I prefer the Tippett version.

Davidsen returned for some operetta, Kálmán’s The Gypsy Princess. Although Davidsen entered into the spirit, this proved not to be her genre. Her words were inaudible, especially when the audience were encouraged to clap along.

Davidsen and Sheku teamed up for the Villa-Lobos – the wordless chant being more effective than the wistful poem sung in Portuguese at the centre of the piece.

The jollity commenced, as usual, with the Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, tubas to the fore. Rebecca Gilliver was most impressive as cello soloist. The sailor’s hornpipe was its usual fun, always a race between conductor and audience – which the conductor always wins first time round. Alsop then played it again in time-honoured tradition, quipping it would be ‘further, faster and together’ this time, as it then was.

Two additions were welcome: the Skye Boat Song was touchingly sung by the BBC Singers, and they received the loudest applause of the evening; surely no-one will remove their Arts Council subsidy now! There followed a Welsh traditional folk love song Ar Lan y Môr (On the seashore); I was unsure whether the chorus mastered the Welsh pronunciation.

Then I simply put down my notes and sang as loudly as I could. It was a great party. Mark your diary – the First Night of the Proms 2024 is on Friday July 19th.

John Rhodes

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