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Classical review: The final Proms cover the waterfront, and the Last Night is the best in years thanks to Marin Alsop

Prom 72 – Calleja, Orchestra Verdi, Zhang (***)Prom 73 - Cooper, Lewis (*****)Prom 74 – Sonnleitner, Vienna Phil, Maazel (***)Prom 75 – DiDonato, Kennedy, BBCSO, Alsop (*****)

The last four Proms covered the waterfront. Household favourite Joseph Calleja was brought on to intersperse Verdi orchestral excerpts with five arias, and though he did this with brisk efficiency there was no sense of style or sincerity: for this Maltese tenor, crossover is a matter of industrial production, and his fans clearly felt short-changed when, instead of singing an encore, he just blew kisses at them. The rest of Prom 72 consisted of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred”, delivered with comparable efficiency by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi under Xian Zhang.

If this Prom was less than the sum of its parts, the one which followed was very much more. Prom 73 began with Imogen Cooper playing Schubert’s C minor D958 piano sonata, allowing the labyrinthine outlines of this mysterious work to work their magic in the darkened auditorium. To see this quintessentially intimate music being rolled out for an audience of thousands – this was a very well-attended Late Prom – was to realise anew that Schubert’s piano sonatas are symphonies in all but name. And when Paul Lewis joined Cooper on a second instrument for the “Grand Duo”, the point was reinforced.

Prom 74 looked interesting on paper, but proved another mismatch. Prefacing Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony with an organ recital of Bach chorales by Klaus Sonnleitner was going to bring history full-circle, in that Sonnleitner is currently organist in the monastery where Bruckner played, while Bruckner himself had given recitals on the Royal Albert Hall organ. Alas, Sonnleitner’s Bach was a crude affair, and no preparation for the transcendent performance of the Vienna Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel which followed. For 85 minutes they held us spellbound by the sheer beauty of their sound, as the peaks of excitement and plateaux of serenity in Bruckner’s great canvas took leisurely and expansive shape.

The Last Prom was the best in years, thanks to resplendent performances by the irresistible Joyce DiDonato and the evergreen Nigel Kennedy, plus the galvanising presence of Marin Alsop on the podium: the chemistry between performers and audience was wonderfully infectious. Flags of all nations waving for “Rule Britannia” were a reminder that the British Empire is now just a tourist fantasy, but DiDonato’s dedication of “Over the rainbow” to her gay fans in Russia pointed to another reality, as did the moving sight of a 90-year-old veteran sailor standing up throughout the “Trinidad” march and saluting his fallen comrades.