mon 23/07/2018

Prom 13 review: Rana, BBCSO, Davis – Malcolm Sargent tribute lacks punch | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 13 review: Rana, BBCSO, Davis – Malcolm Sargent tribute lacks punch

Prom 13 review: Rana, BBCSO, Davis – Malcolm Sargent tribute lacks punch

Historical recreation of 500th Prom short of sparkle until Britten finale

Sir Andrew Davis in energetic and animated formCopyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Ten days ago I reviewed the First Night of the 2017 Proms. Last night I was back at the Royal Albert Hall to hear the First Night of the 1966 Proms. This time-capsule experience was courtesy of a re-enactment of Sir Malcolm Sargent’s 500th Prom, in what turned out to be his final season. It gave an idea of Sargent’s musical tastes – middle-of-the-road classics and English music – and, in places, of his famously audience-pleasing conducting style.

Andrew Davis was in energetic and animated form on the podium, belying his years with a physical engagement with the music. There was something of Sargent’s showmanship in Davis’s performance – particularly in the suite from Walton’s Façade – and in a speech he took care to flatter the Prommers, reminiscing about when he was a younster in the Arena watching Sargent conduct.

Beatrice Rana’s playing was by turns elegant, tender and muscular

There was a reminder of how times change right from the start, with Davis leading a standing BBC Symphony Orchestra and audience in a rendition of the national anthem, in 1966 the standard start to a Prom, nowadays something unusual without royalty present.

Berlioz’s Overture Le Carnaval romain was one of the first pieces of classical music I ever listened to, on a cassette tape my aunt gave me when I was eight. I don’t think I have ever heard it live, so this was my own personal nostalgic moment. Nostalgia aside, it is a terrific piece, buzzing with life and colour from its first moments to its last, played here with verve and attention to detail. Schumann’s Piano Concerto was well played by Beatrice Rana (pictured below). I admire the skilful integration of orchestra and piano that make it more than just a showpiece, although as a piece it does not set my pulse racing. Rana's playing was by turns elegant, tender and muscular, and the orchestra was well balanced alongside her.

The second half was all British 20th century repertoire, all genial, good-tempered music. There was nothing too heavyweight or challenging – Sargent was no esoteric – but some wonderful orchestral sounds to enjoy along the route.Pianist Beatrice Rana performs Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert HallElgar’s Cockaigne Overture is a piece of blatant populism, played with palpable enjoyment by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It has the distinction of being the first piece broadcast by the BBC when it took over the Proms in 1927, and was later the first piece played at the first Prom at the Albert Hall in 1941. Malcolm Sargent himself conducted it 12 times in 20 years, and it still appeals to the Proms audience, who received it delightedly.

As they did the extracts from Walton’s Façade in the orchestral suite made by the composer from the original chamber work. But for me, although the orchestration adds a layer of sophistication and detail, it also flattens out the sharp edges of the original, and losing the narration greatly diminishes the piece.

The revelation of the night was Holst’s The Perfect Fool, music rescued – as with Berlioz’s earlier overture – from a failed opera project. I had not heard this before but really enjoyed it. All the best things about The Planets – rhythmic interest and drive, exotic coloration, blaring brass – could be heard here as well. It was often programmed by Sargent and, on this evidence, is due for a revival of interest.

After some forgettable Delius – apart from more beautiful playing from oboist Richard Simpson – we finished with an undeniable classic: Britten’s Young Person’s Guide. Premiered by Sargent in 1946 and a staple of his Last Nights, the music teems with ideas that flowed from Britten so readily that he wrote the whole 18-minute piece in two weeks. Davis set a good quick tempo throughout, relying on his players to keep up, and the crowning fugue is a compositional tour-de-force that cannot be bettered as a concert closer. Sargent – and Britten – surely knew how to finish on a high.

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