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BBC Proms: A Celebration of Ivor Novello | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: A Celebration of Ivor Novello

BBC Proms: A Celebration of Ivor Novello

Dust off the mothballs and the music of Ivor Novello still emerges fresh and glamorous as ever

Sophie Bevan and Toby Spence: operatic warmth and theatrical belt All images © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Each year I wonder, as the hit-makers and Radio 1 darlings flock to the Ivor Novello Awards, how many spare a thought for that greatest of melodists, who lends his name to their accolades? Precious few, I suspect.

While the musicals of Noël Coward have survived for their wit, the great American classics of Carousel and Oklahoma! for their big numbers and relatable, homespun stories, the eternally anachronistic, fatally glamorous world of Ivor Novello has disappeared without trace. Signs of life have begun to stir recently in London, but with this evening of celebration the Proms have put him front and centre-stage – just where the composer was always happiest.

You can tell at a glance what kind of audience you have in the Royal Albert Hall by which seats are filled. With the stalls all but full (and the Arena looking decidedly bare) it was a generous and an elderly audience that greeted last night’s Late Night Prom – an audience fondly revisiting, one suspected, rather than discovering for the first time. The atmosphere was fond, and gave Simon Callow’s wry and quip-filled narration plenty of encouragement (Callow pictured below). Surmising that we all needed a bit of a refresher course on “the last romantic”, Callow guided us through Novello’s life and works, pausing for musical interjections from the Halle (under the direction of Mark Elder) and from soloists Sophie Bevan and Tony Spence.

The John Wilson Orchestra is a titanium-tough act to follow, but Elder and his band gamely swooped and sashayed through their music, conjuring gypsies and star-crossed lovers as required. But as Novello’s gypsies (so we learned) were kitted-out only in velvets and satins, so this classical ensemble brought a refinement appropriate to this material. None of your brash Hollywood posturings here, but instead lovely, poised string arabesques.

It was good to see Toby Spence back from serious illness and bringing his best matinee-idol brooding to bear in some of Novello’s most heartfelt numbers. “The tongue,” as a contemporary Observer critic commented, “never visibly approaches the cheek” in Novello’s music, and its success relies on a sincerity that can sometimes prove hard to stomach. But here, channelled in Spence’s fragile opening verse of "Keep the Home Fires Burning", and the poignant "Pray for Me", with its anticipation of death, all felt heightened but honest.

Bevan too, charming in the anti-love-duet “Why Isn’t It You?” and soaring for weightier numbers like "I Can Give You the Starlight and Someday My Heart Will Awake", gave herself over to the polite passions of Novello’s world, only occasionaly offering opera when something more intimate was called for.

Our current split between musical-theatre and classical singers doesn’t really allow for the taxing crossover technique of Novello’s writing, demanding operatic warmth but also a theatrical belt (not to mention the ranges of the songs which often sprawl outwards at both ends). Both Spence and Bevan coped well, with Spence shining in the expressive verses and Bevan’s top register and power taking over for the big choruses.

As with any concert of selected rather than collected hits there is the charged question of programming. It would have been lovely to see more of Novello’s humour represented. The feather-light irony of "And Her Mother Came Too" was name-checked but absent musically, while some more turgid ballads ("And the Violin Began to Play", anyone?) crept in, crowding out better numbers. But we gathered lilacs with enthusiasm, which was enough to send everyone home in a blissful, headily-scented haze of nostalgia.

With two young, glamorous soloists, the sympathetic direction of Elder and a BBC Two slot, I very much hope that Ivor Novello’s music can seduce a new generation of fans. His way with a melody (if not with a lyric) taught Andrew Lloyd Webber all he knows, and his world of fantasy, furs and fated loves is one we could all welcome an escape to in our moderns lives.

None of your brash Hollywood posturings here, but instead only lovely, poised string arabesques from the Halle

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Attending this Prom from about a third the way up in the stalls was a deeply disappointing and exasperating experience. There was no prior information that it would be miked and amplified and the sound was absolutely dreadful. Simon Callow’s amplified voice echoed from different parts of the hall at such different times that he was virtually inaudible and it was exhausting to have to strain to try and understand what was being said, and Toby Spence’s was little better. I felt that the actual real (paying) audience were simply there as a backdrop for the TV recording with no real thoughtfulness or consideration for their enjoyment. The performers were accomplished actors and opera singers and there was no need for in-hall amplification… you wouldn’t mike Wagner or Mozart, so why Novello, and in particular, why in so badly botched a fashion? I came close to shouting out in utter frustration!

Very disappointed that Sir Mark didn't give his rendition of "And Her Mother Came Too" - as he did when he and the Halle did a longer version of this concert in Manchester a few years ago.

I agree with Steve W's comments above about the technical deficencies of the concert. Much as I loved the music, at the back of my mind throughout was the consoling thought that I'd be able to watch the event again on TV with better sound. As with My Fair Lady, earlier in the season, the amplification of sound left far too much to be desired.

Sophie Bevan and Toby Spence were not miked, the microphones in front of them were only for the BBC Radio and TV broadcasts. Please correct the caption for the top picture - it's Toby , not Tony.

I have never seen or heard Sophie Bevan before, but , boy, am I now a fan!! Her top notes are sweet and totally effortless. More please...........

An Ivor Novello revival! So suggested last night's television presenter. Having suggested that the broad smile on the Queen's face this year must in part have been due to her keeping the big secret of her Bond girl role in Olympics opening ceremony to a teenager, and recalling my own parents' romantic courting days of the early 1940s, I realised how appropriate were the lyrics and music of this genius so seldom heard in current times. Beautifully played and presented, my thoughts wafted to my parents young years - and to the huge happiness and patriotism the Jubilee and now Olympic Games have brought to the UK in2012 . Communities have united, bonded and blended - dulling memories of recent years of natural disasters, war, riots and terrorism. So why, oh why, when we in the UK are at the heights of third place in the medals charts, so proud of our young athletes showing just how good the UK is, does Simon Callow have to bring down all that Novello's music must have meant to war torn GB in the 1940s with tacky innuendo references to Royal Family personal trauma? Our young Royals are showing all courage bringing hearts to the fore for the UK in future years. WHY such unnecessary cheap comparisons with a 1949 musical, the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, and a public family's tragedies? Shame on whoever approved this. Shades of 2011's satirical Comedy Prom? Perhaps the same producer wishing it had been repeated. Am sad!

I booked for the Ivor Novello Prom with a good deal of trepidation. I fell in love with his music in my early teens (I am now 78) but despite attending a couple of revivals of his musicals, and some concert items, I have never heard the music in anything approaching the authenticity of the original recordings. The conductors and singers did their best, but they just did not 'get' this music. It is a bit like Viennese operettas, or the operas of Bellini - they have their own idiosyncracies, their ways of phrasing, of pausing, of expression, and it is something that can be neither learnt nor taught. It is either in your bones or it  isn't. I was lucky enough to see two performances of "The Dancing Years" at Golder's Green Hippodrome in the late '50s or early '60s with Ivor Novello's own touring company and some original cast members, and I will never forget it. It was sheer enchantment. The musical was also revived by an amateur operatic company, the Welwyn Thalians (my home town But since then, apart from a delightful revival of "The Dancing Years" by the Welwyn Thalians, all the events I have attended have been very disappointing - the revivals of musicals almost bordering on pastiche. The Promenade Concert was, to me, a revelation. From the first notes it was obvious that this music definitely was in Sir Mark Elder's bones, and he had infected the orchestra and singers with his enthusiasm as well. I was in tears (happy ones) almost all the way through, it was so wonderful to hear this music played and sung as it was meant to be. If only Ivor Novello could have been there (perhaps he was) he would have been over the moon with the wonderful orchestra and the performances. I will always be grateful that I was there, and could hear once more these glorious melodies as they were meant to be heard. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

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