Proms 72 & 73, Royal Albert Hall, London

Music that rose to the occasion
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The Independent Culture

The prayer of remembrance – as Daniele Gatti characterised Verdi's Requiem on the penultimate night of the Proms – began in strings so muted that their sound barely moved the air. The first words from the chorus – "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine" ("Grant them eternal rest, O Lord") – were almost indistinguishable from silence. The last time the Proms programmed this work, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sir Georg Solti were remembered. This time, the tragedy and its implications were on such an unprecedented scale and weighed so heavily on the occasion that it was difficult, no, impossible, for some of us to be objective about the quality of the music-making we heard.

Was Gatti's reading of a more operatic than spiritual nature? More Old than New Testament? Did his keen ear, his wonderful way of opening up the textures, his unfailing sense of the part rhythm plays in clarifying those textures, seem a little too prescribed? Was that why a few idiots were able to violate the silence at the close with their clapping – because something underlying was missing from this performance, something that would have made that silence more profound, more impenetrable? I don't know. I can tell you that the presence of the chorus from the Bologna Opera lent an old-church intensity to the proceedings; that the singing of his soloists was notable more for its character than its beauty; and that the Royal Philharmonic were on the tip of Gatti's baton.

The BBC Symphony were certainly on the tip of Leonard Slatkin's baton for his first Last Night as their chief conductor. And the way that they played for him, supported him – that alone made this a more memorable Last Night than we are accustomed to. The programme was changed, the flags were fewer, the balloons and paper planes were gone, the whistles and horns silenced, the chants, the jokes, curtailed. It was a very different, very subdued Albert Hall that greeted us.

Slatkin, the first American ever to conduct the Last Night, did speak, simply and with dignity, expressing the hope that we would all meet again this time next year in different circumstances. The bust of Henry Wood was duly adorned with the customary laurel wreath. We did sing "Jerusalem".

But what was really moving this time around was the way in which the Proms audience, without undue piousness or raucous jingoism, accepted and respected the spirit in which the evening was conceived. I did wonder about "The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Verdi's Nabucco, but the message carried forth in the Spirituals from Tippett's A Child of Our Time, and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the 9th Symphony, hit their mark.

Bach was present in Resp-ighi's spectacular transcription of his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, music made to measure for the Albert Hall, while John Adams was represented by the stratospheric Tromba lontana – airy remnants of fanfares for the common man seemingly caught on winds of change. And there was a wonderful symmetry in the counterpointing of Gerald Finzi's Elegy for Orchestra, The Fall of the Leaf, with Barber's Adagio for Strings, both at once mournful and uplifting: nature's continuity finding expression in the continuity of the eternal lyric. Comparisons with the BBC Symphony's performance of the Barber earlier in the season proved a most eloquent illustration of how music can rise to the occasion.

Proms 72 and 73 will be rebroadcast by Radio 3 on 30 & 31 December respectively