mon 14/10/2019

The Last Night of the Proms, Connolly, Balsom, BBCSO, Robertson | reviews, news & interviews

The Last Night of the Proms, Connolly, Balsom, BBCSO, Robertson

The Last Night of the Proms, Connolly, Balsom, BBCSO, Robertson

A night of humour, emotion and revelation

The height of naffness? The best of British? All images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The height of naffness? The best of British? A bit of fun? Opinions always splinter over the Last Night of the Proms. The received wisdom is that, if you have a brain or any genuine care for music, you’re not really meant to enjoy the Last Night; you’re meant to endure it, bravely, stoically, heroically, like a terminal illness, by taking each sonic and visual blow on the chin. What is really not meant to happen is for one to find - next to the usual bits of aural and intellectual GBH - moments of genuine comedy, emotion and even musical revelation.

Things began before they'd begun. Conductor David Robertson had barely lifted his baton when a balloon started to whizz and fizz its way up towards the acoustical lily pads, as if making a last-ditch attempt to be accepted into Oliver Knussen’s Flourish for Fireworks that opened the evening. It was a decentish impression of a firework – for a balloon - immediately outclassed by Knussen’s own. His piece brilliantly captured the delicately ephemeral but excitable nature of a pyrotechnical display. It was music that appeared to travel both everywhere and nowhere, very satisfyingly, in a very short space of time.

From here we entered the much less sophisticated world of Purcell as reimagined by Henry Wood. A pretty unimaginative and four-square rearrangement of that brilliant Baroque composer's music that, nonetheless, showed what versatile players the BBC Symphony Orchestra are, through forcing awkward chamber ensembles on certain individuals. And then we came to the meat, the emotion, Sarah Connolly, in imposing Edwardian dress, sucking us straight into the celebrated lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It was a profoundly impressive performance, perfectly judged in ornamentation as well as line.

A change of dress later and she was giving an equally powerful rendition of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. In both, it wasn’t just her voice that was delivering something special but her face. However close the cameras came to examine Connolly’s face – and one could follow their beady lenses on the screens in the hall - they couldn’t catch her out. Connolly inhabits a role - whether Dido or Mahler’s traveller, or later, more jokily, Admiral Nelson in full regalia in Arne's Rule, Britannia! - like few others. Whoever she is, the psychology is entered into with unflinching conviction. The furrows on her brow in the first song of Mahler’s cycle appeared ancient; the naivety that invades her soul when she begins to sing about the birds, fresh and clean. Voice and body were always in perfect unison.

Comedy came with Sir Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand, Grand Overture for three Hoovers (performed by conductor Jiri Belohlavek, violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Stephen Hough) one floor polisher (Sir David Attenborough) and four rifles (Goldie, Martha Kearney, Rory Bremner and double-bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku). Belohlavek and Pike began to give the Hoovers a bit of vibrato; Attenborough messed up the recapitulation, bringing the floor polisher in too early. What was, however, most funny about these near-authentic 1970s (at a guess) beige Hoovers was the subtlety of their sound. They were rather delicate little things that really did seem to need some musical coaxing.

And the musical revelation for me appeared in the shape of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Choros No 10, Rasga o coracao, from 1926. What an extraordinary piece it is, journeying from the edges of sonic respectability, from the rusty honks and hoots of Varese, through to the sharp syncopations, melodious layering, and bells and whistles of a Brazilian carnival. It is a great testament to his skill that Villa-Lobos managed to marry so much diverse material with such clarity and force.

The rest of the programme tootled along as you might expect,  the audience a bit confused by the serious music, much happier with the school assembly sing-songs, and happier still with the peroxide-blonde trumpeter babe, Alison Balsom, whose every appearance they greeted with a game show "Oooooo!" There was only one real clanger - a specially commissioned clanger - Sarah Connolly scatting to an arrangement of Gershwin’s Shall We Dance, of which the less is said the better.

You’re not really meant to enjoy the Last Night; you’re meant to endure it, bravely, stoically, heroically, like a terminal illness

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