MUSIC / The little and large show: The sublime to the ridiculous - Edward Seckerson on the first two nights of the 100th Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
A hundreth season of Proms. It takes you back. Or at least John Drummond is hoping it will. On the second night, he wheeled out a typical Prom programme, circa 1900 (6 September, to be precise). Fifteen composers in one evening - a trolley-full of sweetmeats to make even Henry Kelly's Classic FM shows seem positively nutritious. Coming less than 24 hours after Schoenberg's mighty Gurrelieder, the long and the short of it exemplified what we've always known about the Proms - that they're unique, audacious, eclectic, and sometimes just plain dotty. Conductor Barry Worthsworth raised Sir Henry Wood's baton and offered three cheers. Another way of saying - thanks for the memories.

One memory Sir Henry never had was of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder mounted as part of a Prom season. That dream remained unfulfilled until 29 years after his death. Especially fitting, then, that Drummond should have chosen it as the big opener for his big occasion. And that Andrew Davies should have conducted it so memorably. This is a unique piece whose reach seems to lengthen with every hearing. This is song made cosmic. This is the musical universe after Tristan und Isolde, the beginning of the end of late Romanticism. There are harmonies and sonorities here which quite literally cross over to the other side: to the atonality and ever more complex polyphony of an unknown future. And still it ends with the mother of all C major sunrises.

The real glory of Davis's performance was his orchestra - the BBC Symphony. Whether etching in the intricate chirrupings of Schoenberg's dusk music, or engulfing us with proclamations of love and doom, we could hear right into this orchestral sound. Admittedly, Schoenberg understood the balance of his orchestra better than he did the capabilities of his singers. The prommers at the front got the best deal. Further back, Karita Mattila's big voice still rode the crest of some glorious phrases to the 'rapturous kiss' of her final high C, and Ann Murray duly trawled the pathos of the Wood-dove's song. But Waldemar is a super-hero for whom no mortal tenor really exists. Neil Breeden gave it his best shot, under some duress. He might have taken a lead from David Wilson- Johnson and Philip Langridge - that it's words and not sound which make it to the back of the Albert Hall.

The great Hans Hotter, making his Prom debut at 85 (that's almost as much a cause for celebration as the Prom centenary itself), had earned some amplification for his climactic speechsong 'The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind'. But still, how he filled those words. We were even afforded a glimpse or two of that once-towering bass baritone. The combination of his rapture - the uplift of phrases like 'Ach, war das licht und hell]' - and the sudden flood of light from the hitherto unheard women's choir was just indescribable.

And speaking of the indescribable, a word or two about the following night's centenary 'concert party'. Bizarre? Interminable? Was it ever. A succession of 'turns', Victorian parlour-fare, pieces with fancy French names. So much frou-frou that the harp was placed downstage, lest we miss a note of it. Gounod rubbed shoulders with Massenet, Puccini with Gordon Langford in a newly commissioned 'Grand Fantasia' (or summer pudding) on themes from La boheme. Bassoonist Gareth Newman played Weber in a turquoise suit, Della Jones brought two frocks, plenty of chest voice, Donizetti and Florian Pascal (who?). How do you follow a song called 'Fairy Fretting'? With 'Home, Sweet Home', of course. And then the band played Sousa. Only at the Proms.

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