ENDNOTES, July 24th 2015
First Night of the Proms
Stuart Millson attends a much loved event
As a young 19-year-old Promenader, I can remember the sense of expectation that I and others felt in the Arena queue for the First Night of the 1984 Proms. After Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony and Sea Pictures by Elgar (sung by the great Dame Janet Baker), the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, steered his large-scale choral and instrumental forces through Walton’s oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast. Making my way to the Royal Albert Hall for the 2015 opening concert, I found that – at the age of 50 – none of my enthusiasm for this work, and indeed for the Proms, had in any way been diminished by the passage of time. Walton’s music, too, is highly durable: this lavish choral work from the 1930s (possibly the composer’s greatest decade) sounding mint-fresh and utterly compelling in its telling of the fall of Babylon – not one part of the score seeming in any way dated or “of its time”. Belshazzar’s Feast will always be modern music.
It is quite true: I had come to the First Night chiefly to hear Walton’s thrilling music, although the BBC programme planners had compiled a stimulating, contrasting evening – with Nielsen’s Maskarade Overture as its energetic curtain-raiser; and a new work of many rhythms and layers by accessible contemporary composer, Gary Carpenter, to follow. A Mozart Piano Concerto (No. 20 – played with true grace and subtle, classical colouring by Lars Vogt) also appeared; and a somewhat rare Sibelius suite, inspired by the story of Belshazzar.
The Proms this year is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Dane, Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), and for those who haven’t yet bought the BBC Proms Guide, do so. The publication contains a highly informative piece on the composer’s life – his journey to Britain, on which he met the founder-conductor of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood; and much additional background on Danish identity and philosophy. The Art Editor of the Guide also deserves huge praise for the choice of an enchanting 1930s’ travel-poster illustration which accompanies the article: a haze of sunshine over a lowland landscape – the single word – Nielsen – appearing where “Visit Denmark” probably appeared.
Under the baton of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s present Chief Conductor, the Finnish maestro, Sakari Oramo, Maskarade from Nielsen’s 1906, Holberg-inspired operatic masterpiece galloped along in fizzing style: the players enjoying its jaunty, almost comic quality – and yet seizing upon the pulse of serious energy which runs through nearly every work by this composer; a figure who grasped and embodied both “absolute” music in all its extremity and fury, and the folk-music of old-remembered places from his youth. The Maskarade overture has several wonderful moments: an abrupt, almost rasping oompah outburst (with two cymbal clashes for good measure), and a whirligig descent into a full-throttle finale – the whole orchestra, unstoppable and breathless.
Contemporary British composer, Gary Carpenter (b. 1951) is an interesting figure – a musician who set out in the 1960s learning composition at the Royal College of Music, and serving on such projects as the 1973 film (set on a sinister Pagan Scottish island), The Wicker Man. Film buffs and enthusiasts for cult music may remember the “sound” of this film: its weird processions of clashing brass, and seemingly innocent folkish fiddle-playing, all adding a strange sense of approaching doom. This time, Gary Carpenter has been inspired by the work of artist, Max Ernst: a wall of iron (but actually made of cork) from 1924 which hangs in a gallery in Liverpool. The opening of this piece – Dadaville – reminded me of the Dawn interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes, but from this brief serenity arose a score which assembled and toyed with many stronger, more abstract sounds (the orchestration included a saxophone) – ending with a bang of actual pyrotechnics from above the orchestra.
Over the years, the Proms has made something of a tradition of including such pieces (by composers such as Simon Bainbridge, Thomas Adès et al): instantaneous, interesting, technically brilliant, and not entirely without tonality, but works that seem to this reviewer to be clever exercises, rather than music which is destined to endure because it has either a story or a great heart. However, I found myself enjoying Dadaville, and I warmed to Gary Carpenter when he was interviewed on Radio 3 (his serious yet down-to-earth character, and easy-going way of explaining his style and motivation making for a very enjoyable broadcast).
The inclusion of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, well known for its second movement (a gentle, delicate, wistful bone-china tune from an 18th-century drawing room, rather than a concert hall) brought a classical calm to the middle of the concert – Lars Vogt clearly relishing his chance to perform with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (he kept leaning towards the front-desk violins and interacting with the players); and warming at the same time to the closeness of the large promenade audience, all of whom seemed to be in a state of complete concentration. Perhaps, though, it might have been better to have included a slightly more robust, purposeful concerto for this programme, as the watery classicism of this delightful D minor piece just managed (again – a very personal view) to lessen the flow, and interrupt “the sense” of the evening; my mind wandering just a little. Usually, you might not find Mozart and Walton in the same concert, but the Proms being what it is, juxtapositions can sometimes work out well – and there was no doubting Lars Vogt’s brilliance.
Sibelius is well known for his symphonies (which will be played later in the season); for his Finlandia and En Saga. Yet there is a body of smaller-scale pieces – King Christian ll, incidental music to The Tempest, and a suite, Belshazzar’s Feast, which bring out a further meditative, lyricist side to a composer, often seen as representing great rocks, ice-flows and dark forests. An oriental colouring melts the Finnish ice for a quarter-of-an-hour: Sibelius’s ‘Belshazzar’ giving us a soft introductory march, some strongly-coloured, almost exotic writing for woodwind, and a gentle Valse Triste-style waltz at the work’s conclusion.
Having set the scene in ancient Babylon, the Prom moved to its overwhelming conclusion: the massed forces of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Singers, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – augmented by two off-stage brass bands, and the great Royal Albert Hall organ – bringing to the packed hall the full force of Walton’s masterpiece. And yet, the riotous impact of this extravagant composition is only felt at certain places – the work beginning in a tense, subdued half-light; the deep, slow rumble of violas, cellos, double-basses, and the massed-chorus (in soft tones) evoking “the waters of Babylon”, and in the line, “yea we wept and hanged our harps upon the willows…” summoning a sense of tragedy. The solo baritone, Christopher Maltman, produced a deep, sonorous tone; projecting his voice – with perfect diction – to the whole hall – a contribution which added a theatrical, operatic drama to the evening. One of his most important lines –
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. Yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy…”
– was delivered with an intensity I have seldom heard, building one of the first great climactic moments of the work.
Sakari Oramo also opted for a slightly slower tempo than is customary with performances of Belshazzar’s Feast (which often tend to race forward, gaining not power, but a feeling of congestion) – the result of which was the opening up of much grander vistas for the huge choir which spanned the entire “back” of the hall. The score “breathed” and unfolded, enabling everyone to savour every instrumental colour – even the thundering, vibrating and rumbling of the Royal Albert Hall organ, which was like a pillar of sound from ancient Babylon. The complicated exertions and build-ups – such as “Praise ye the gods” – were delivered with tremendous force and unanimity; a great feat for such a massive, spread-out array and battery of musical instruments and voices.
A sense of calm, cathedral-like, Elgarian visionary Englishness changes the mood of the work, close to the end:
“While the Kings of the Earth lament, And the merchants of the Earth Weep, wail and rend their raiment. They cry, Alas, Alas, that great city…”
Soon, a small section of choir members are on their own, in a passage reminiscent of the composer’s Masefield setting, Where does the uttered music go? However, timpani thumps out a new quick-stepping idea, and the whole ensemble moves into jubilant action again, as “Babylon the great” falls. Five abrupt orchestral utterances then unleash the last great roar from the BBC Symphony Orchestra; with brass almost floating upon an immense organ chord.
All that was left for the audience to do was to cheer.
But I hope readers will bear with me, with this last (sentimental) indulgence… As I left Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s hall that evening, it was difficult not to feel pride: pride in our musical tradition, in the musicians whose work we had enjoyed, and in the British Broadcasting Corporation which has run and championed the Proms since 1927.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review