Agitprop, anguish, hope and glory

Proms 70-72 | Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio Three
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The Independent Culture

You don't need a map to find your way to Mahagonny, but Jeremy Paxman as tour guide was a delicious conceit. So, too, the idea of placing Kurt Weill's Weimar opera on the night before Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony. That's agitprop in earnest. And still we survived to sing "Land of Hope and Glory" one more time.

You don't need a map to find your way to Mahagonny, but Jeremy Paxman as tour guide was a delicious conceit. So, too, the idea of placing Kurt Weill's Weimar opera on the night before Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony. That's agitprop in earnest. And still we survived to sing "Land of Hope and Glory" one more time.

So much irony was riding on the last three nights of the Proms that Sir Andrew Davis's parting rendition of "We are the very model of a modern music festival" (pace Gilbert and Sullivan) was in danger of sounding sincere. Perish the thought. Anyone who can rhyme "silly noise" with "Illinois" (Sir Andrew is headed for a new job at the Lyric Opera in Chicago) is someone we should be sorry to lose. And we are.

So, having survived Brecht and Weill in earnest , and at length, on the evils of capitalism, we then played host to the world's classiest pick-up band on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the London Blitz - which, of course, robbed us of the Queens Hall, the Proms' original home. The World Orchestra for Peace (first brought together by Sir Georg Solti for the UN's 50th anniversary) was conducted by Valery Gergiev, who unusually sported a baton, lest the 105 musicians from 66 orchestras in 26 countries be in any doubt as to when the sound, so poetically contoured through his tremulous technique, actually began and ended.

But they read him like a book. Divisi cellos found perfect accord in their luxuriant "fair weather" moment at the heart of the first of Debussy's three symphonic sketches of La Mer, suggesting that, however disparate their origins, players of skill and temperament bond quickly. SS Baltic (for such was the character of Gergiev's briny reading) was certainly seaworthy.

And magnificent under siege. Shostakovich's 7th ("Leningrad") Symphony is not yet, I suspect, central to Gergiev's enormous repertoire. His eyes rarely left the score, and there were moments - not least during the first movement's monstrous mutation from toe-tapping penny-whistle march to full-blown invasion - where the beast he had unleashed almost ran away from him. And yet the moral authority was overwhelming. The inner movements' Mahlerian ironies were bitterly immediate: the switch from oboe to bass clarinet for the second movement's ländler inescapably mindful of the many who danced on their own graves; the Bachian chorale and recitative of the third, so painfully transmuted from nobility to anguish.

No anguish or invective on Andrew Davis's last last night. Shostakovich "lightened up", thanks to Gerard McBurney, who stitched up (in the best sense) his long-lost Jazz Suite No 2 (1938) with sufficient Dixieland banjo plucking to the approval of Percy Grainger, whose camping up of "Camptown Races" (tribute to Foster) made for the perfect stable-mate (all puns intended). If we weren't in la-la land before, we were now, bowed marimbas, harmonium, and indecently close harmony spiriting us down under in every sense.

But that's what last nights are about. Why even the moral turpitude of the closing scene from Strauss's Salome gave no offence. Jane Eaglen sat out the "Dance of the Seven Veils" before launching her brave bid to make the text audible in Sydney, Australia. But Strauss defeated even her. She and Davis weren't rude enough. It was the kind of performance that had "not in front of Henry Wood" written all over it. Very English.

Eaglen returned, of course, handsomely to embellish our rendition of Jerusalem. As the promenaders so rightly chanted: "the season's not over until..."

 

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 71 (Gergiev) on 15 Sept at 2pm

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