Prom 72

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The Independent Culture

Though there continues to be some toning down in the jingoistic boisterousness of the Last Night of the Proms since September 11, most of the old rituals are still in place: right down to the mock weeping of the front rows of Promenaders during the mournful cello solo of Charles Didbin's "Tom Bowling" in the now restored Henry Wood version of the Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. This year, Angela Gheorghiu brought French, Italian and even Romanian repertoire, behaving like the natural diva she is but singing with an affecting and dramatic integrity. And Leonard Slatkin now emerges as a natural Last-Night conductor; he plays up convincingly to the crowd and his speech was a model mix of humour and seriousness. The BBC Symphony entered gamely into the spirit of it all.

Yet the overall effect of attending the Last Night is one of surprising intimacy. On television, it's all quick, nervy camera action, incorporating footage from the Proms in the Park. In the hall itself, the impression is not only smaller in scale (TV makes everything look bigger, of course) but also somehow less raucous, less jingoistic even. Even though the words of "Land of Hope and Glory" might rankle you, and someone is waving a flag in your left ear, you would have to be very curmudgeonly to find it at all disturbing. And when the violinist Leila Josefowicz played the famous Meditation from Massenet's Thais, there was a heart-tugging stillness in the hall as 6,000 people listened enraptured.

In a good year for new music at the Proms, it was appropriate that Joseph Phibbs' new Lumina managed to make an impact here. One of only three composers under 40 to be heard this season, Phibbs was a pupil of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. But Lumina's clever alternation, and overlapping, of affecting, though never cloying lyricism and well-orchestrated but never vacuous glitter didn't once risk alienating his enormous audience in the way his teacher's Panic did at the Last Night eight years ago.

On the penultimate night, Birtwistle's own latest orchestral work, The Shadow of Night, was programmed with the traditional end-of-season performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, thus ensuring its British premiere a large audience. Played by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi, The Shadow of Night furthers again its composer's obsession with melancholy. If it starts out of the hesitant, lumbering depths so familiar from earlier Birtwistle to mount a series of likewise characteristic journeys through some profound and beautifully lyrical effusions to a series of epic climaxes, this new work is no mere regurgitator of Birtwistlean fingerprints, but a substantial, absorbing half-hour of music that has an inexorable ebb and flow, and, at least in this performance, seemed much clearer in texture that its composer himself suggests.

Dohnanyi's ability to clarify and shape long spans of music was also on display in the Choral Symphony. This powerful reading, which sagged only once, towards the end of the third movement, also benefited from a strong team of vocal soloists (Diana Damrau, Charlotte Hellekant, Robert Dean Smith and Alastair Miles) and the stirling contributions of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the Philharmonia Chorus.