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THE PROMS: THE FIRST WEEK: A personal View by Dr David Wright



A season highlighting both Walton, the centenary of whose birth falls this year, and of Spanish music are two major features of this Proms season. Could it possibly be that the debate over Gibraltar between Britain and Spain, which has been rumbling on for many years, influenced Nicholas Kenyon’s programming to mollify the Spanish?

As the Proms is a British institution it is infuriating that so many British composers are being ignored yet again. Nothing by Fricker, Hamilton, Apivor, Searle, Wordsworth, Goehr et al. To steal (and modify) a quote, "Blow up the Britten, evict the Elgar and free the forgotten!" At least this year, however, we have been spared the dreadful Elgar Cello Concerto and the Violin Concerto, which is almost as bad, as well as the composer’s overblown symphonies.

The opening night began with Chabrier’s Espana which the composer said was in F and nothing else. This was followed by Roberto Sierra’s engaging Fandangos and then Maxim Vengerov was the soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. Vengerov is one of the idols of the Proms, something which must have to do with his personality and not his musicianship. His performance was ghastly. He actually said that the conductor, Leonard Slatkin, must have bad trouble following him because of his constantly changing the tempi. While we may applaud his honesty it does not justify what he did. Not only was his time keeping nothing less than shocking his style was mannered and aggressive at times and, therefore, the charm and elegance of the piece was lost. I tried to follow his performance in the score but that was impossible. I have not heard it played this badly since Menuhin’s recording with Goossens.

Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was preceded by an interview with Lady Walton, which, frankly, was an embarrassment. The old myth that Walton used two brass bands in Belshazzar’s Feast was yet again perpetrated. In fact, he did not even use one brass band: there are no cornets, saxhorns and bombardons in the score, but there is extra orchestral brass. The performance started with some wobbly singing and occasionally bad intonation, particularly in the unaccompanied choral passages. But then it took off. Willard White was the excellent baritone soloist with a wonderful cadaverous voice. However, I have always doubted the viability of Walton’s ending.

The BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda gave us The Nation’s Favourite Prom, a wild and ridiculous concept. Denyce Graves was superb in three songs from Gershwin, exquisitely sung without ostentation, and three arias by Bizet and Saint-Saens. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, another Prom idol, played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; a very disappointing performance. It did not sound like Gershwin more like delicate French impressionism. And to add to the problems the vigorous parts were extreme. It did not hang together well; in fact, it was painfully episodic.

Prom 4 on the Monday evening gave us our first real violinist in Kyung-Wha Chung. I was disappointed that she played the Bruch Violin concerto no. 1; it would have been preferable had she played something more challenging and less familiar. But it was a superb performance devoid of nauseating sentimentality. Her intonation was perfect; her faithful adherence to the score was accurate and commendable (Vengerov take note!); her control and style was faultless. Her brother, Myung-Whun Chung. conducted the Philharmonique de Radio France and the balance and texture was first rate. Messaien’s L’Ascension was sublime, the closing fourth meditation having a glorious spiritual depth I have not encountered before. The concert ended with Ravel’s vulgar La Valse and reminded us how inconsequentially predictable the waltz style is. There was an encore in the Prelude to Carmen by Bizet which the Prommers loved!

More Ravel in Prom 5 with Ravel’s gorgeous song cycle Shéhérazade where the soprano Frederica von Stade was badly cast. This Ravel work is a hybrid. The central movement is so vastly better than the outer two that it is difficult to access its worth. The concert started badly with Elgar’s Alassio a typically self-important and pompous work by that most arrogant of all composers. David Sawyer’s Piano Concerto was given its premiere with Rolf Hind as soloist. In two movements and short it had nothing much to say. I was left with the impression that the composer’s heart was not in it.

Prom 7 was an unintended memorial to Xavier Montsalvatge who died in May. His Canciones Negras were beautifully sung by Jennifer Larmore with Lawrence Foster conducting the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra who were also excellent in Falla’s finest score, The Three Cornered Hat. The concert began with Roberto Gerhard’s fascinating and profoundly impressive Concerto for Orchestra, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.

Prom 8 paired the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Paul Daniel. Henze’s Fandango was a lacklustre affair; the performance simply did not fizz. Paul Lewis was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 but it did not sound like Beethoven. It sounded more like Schubert, of whom Lewis is a disciple it appears. The drive and drama was largely absent. Vaughan Williams' epoch-making Symphony no. 4 in F minor is a truly great work but deserved better attention in this performance. The sheer energy and savagery was reduced and sometimes missing, and the impact of this incredible score was mostly lost. Listen to Bryden Thompson on Chandos and hear how it should be played. As for me I am looking forward to Paul Daniel giving a good performance of anything!

In the many years I have been listening to the Proms, which the BBC claim is the greatest music festival in the world, there have been many very ordinary and unsatisfactory performances. The trend continues!

Dr David C F Wright and Dr Linda Karen Dowson



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