The first night of the Proms was, in this year of Olympic celebrations and the Diamond Jubilee, a tribute to all things English, featuring an impressive range of singers and a (somewhat appropriate) relay team of stellar English conductors.
The programme began with a strange mixture of old and new. First, Edward Gardner took up the baton to conduct the world première of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Canon Fever, a fanfare composed to celebrate BBC Music Magazine’s 20th anniversary. Written for brass and percussion, it is a discordant, eerie cacophony of sound, punctuated by a repeated whirring phrase that is somehow unsettling. At just under three minutes in length, it seemed to be over before it had begun, and couldn’t have been in stronger contrast to what followed: Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture.
The Cockaigne Overture is the composer’s love letter to the capital. Unashamedly patriotic, it was described by Elgar as “stout and steaky”, but in the hands of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it became a glamorous portrait of a bygone London. Images of processions, marching bands and the bustle of the city’s flower markets are all conjured up, leading to a glorious royal celebration that is quintessentially Elgar. Sir Roger Norrington clearly adores the piece and conducted with gusto, bringing out London’s distinctive characteristics beautifully. Humour and elegance were present in equal measure, and the soaring strings followed by booming percussion were surely enough to melt even the least patriotic of hearts.
Then came the highlight of the evening: Frederick Delius’ Sea Drift. Conducted by Sir Mark Elder and performed by Bryn Terfel and the BBC Symphony Chorus, the piece is a setting of the beautiful Walt Whitman poem, telling the story of a mockingbird that has lost its mate. Sea Drift takes the audience on a complex journey of emotions, and Terfel is the perfect interpreter of these complexities. He was visibly moved by the stunning words and melodies, and his mighty bass-baritone captured the intensity and drama of the story. He proved, with the line ‘O darkness! O in vain!’, that he is still able to raise the roof, but from this awe-inspiring power, he slid effortlessly into a velvety, lyrical beauty, delivering ‘O I am very sick and sorrowful’ with such sensitivity and tenderness that it was almost impossible to breathe. After the final note had been sung, there were five seconds of contemplative silence before the Proms audience erupted into grateful applause.
Post-interval, Martyn Brabbins stepped up to the podium to conduct Michael Tippett’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles, which was commissioned by the BBC in 1948. When originally propositioned, Tippet was reluctant to shift his attention from the opera he was composing at the time (The Midsummer Marriage) but changed his mind when he realised he could incorporate a number of English folk songs and hymns into the work. By referencing these existing pieces, he created a narrative that explores a royal marriage and the birth of a prince, and predicts a childhood filled with joy. The Suite is full of regal brass and clashing cymbals, and created a celebratory mood perfect for the Diamond Jubilee year. Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra sought out the soulful depths of the piece, but conveyed the delicate folk melodies with a gentle sophistication that was very pleasing and at times incredibly uplifting.
The evening ended with a return to Elgar. His Coronation Ode continued the regal theme, and Edward Gardner was welcomed back to the stage to conduct a piece that has become synonymous with the Proms. Commissioned by the Covent Garden Opera Syndicate for the Coronation of King Edward the VII, the piece celebrates a new monarch, his consort, and through ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the nation itself. Four wonderful singers joined the BBC Symphony Chorus to deliver the Ode, but it was bass-baritone Gerald Finley and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly that wowed the most.
Finley gave us a bombastic performance of the rousing ‘Britain, Ask of Thyself’, his weighty and powerful voice enthralling the audience and eliciting spontaneous, appreciative cries. His diction is crystal clear and he possesses a beauty of tone that always leaves you wanting more. Connolly’s rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was just as strong, but in a softer, more contemplative way. There was no flag-waving here – instead we listened intently to Gardner’s measured conducting and the creamy beauty of Connolly’s voice, which conveyed elegance, intensity and passion.
This was an incredibly powerful start to the Proms, providing us with a heady combination of beauty and pomp, as well as offering a taste of the wonderful things to come across the 76-night season.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP