MUSIC / Last but not least: Anthony Payne on the two final Proms

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The Independent Culture
WITH TWO Proms still to go, the BBC was able to announce that box office receipts had exceeded pounds 2m for the first time in a season, and that there had been an average attendance per concert of 81 per cent - this despite increasingly adventurous programme planning. Typical was Friday's concert, where a combination of iconoclastic and modern drew a big crowd. Iconoclastic, that is, if you subscribe to the philosophy of authentic baroque performance, and modern, in so far as Tippett's 50-year-old oratorio A Child of Our Time is still the newest choral work of modernistic tendencies to have entered the repertory.

The interpretation of Bach's Concerto in D minor given by the 68-year-old Tatyana Nikolaeva (surely one of the longest delayed of all Prom debuts) might have scandalised the more doctrinaire authenticists. But this performance on piano with a biggish string section brought a breath of fresh air, much as the first authentic versions had done years ago. Only the most niggling critic could have missed the generosity of spirit in Nikolaeva's playing, even if it was somewhat thunderously delivered, and it confirmed that there is more than one route to the heart and soul of Bach.

Judging by the way he recast works from one medium to another, Bach's was a remarkably flexible attitude towards timbre, and we might hazard a guess that he would have loved his harpsichord concerto on the piano. Romantic this performance undoubtedly was, but it revealed truths in its power and dark thrust which were only possible through this particular medium.

As for the Tippett, this was quite simply one of the finest interpretations I have ever heard. The passionate commitment and urgency of the composer's vision could be seen to have welded all the work's disparate stylistic elements into a perfect whole, something which is often not so obvious in less fine performances.

The BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus sang magnificently, bringing the most moving quality to the famous spirituals, and attacking the testing counterpoint in 'The Terror' with great verve and conviction. The BBC Symphony Orchestra contributed marvellously, with ringing brass and dancing string rhythms, while bringing all together in the most touching spirit of celebration was conductor Andrew Davis, total master of the score and its secrets. Of the soloists, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Willard White were exemplary, Sarah Reese and La Verne Williams somewhat less commanding.

And so on to the last night, traditionally as much party as concert. There was an avowed attempt to sum up the season's general tendencies with elements cosmopolitan - Nikolaeva in Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, Kiri Te Kanawa singing arias by Massenet, Korngold, Catalani and Puccini most beautifully - as well as unusual: Peter Maxwell Davies's hilarious An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. Perhaps just one big serious work would have offset the lighter items hallowed by tradition, but overtures by Rossini, Sullivan and Brahms did indeed combine weight and entertainment value, as too, in their different way, did the stirring unison songs by Elgar and Parry. To be part of a huge audience singing Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem is an emotionally revealing experience.

There is, nevertheless, a danger of these last-night programmes with their predictable high jinks atrophying into memory-blurring cliche. So it will be good to be able to recall George McIlwham's majestic bagpipes crowning the tipsy junketing of the Maxwell Davies, and Andrew Davis's singing of the traditional closing speech in Sullivanesque mode - he is a brilliant Master of Ceremonies as well as an outstanding conductor of a BBC Symphony Orchestra that is rapidly becoming far more than merely admirable.