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
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
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
Dr David C F Wright and Dr Linda Karen Dowson