Prom 76: The Last Night of the Proms 2008

Bryn Terfel; Hélène Grimaud; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chorus & Singers/Sir Roger Norrington

Royal Albert Hall, 15 September 20084 stars

Bryn TerfelAs the 2008 BBC Proms finally draws to a close, let us reflect on what has, ultimately, been a successful first season for new director Roger Wright. We've seen the anniversaries of four major twentieth-century composers acknowledged and their works honoured. There's been a pioneering willingness to recognise classical music's role in aspects of popular culture (as in the 'Dr. Who' Prom), and an innovatively retrospective approach in recreating programmes of past Proms concerts. Throughout this journey we've continued to enjoy a wholesome diet of the best soloists, the finest conductors, the most renowned orchestras, and – at the heart of it all – the greatest music, from Monteverdi to Messiaen. As usual, the final concert was an apposite send-off for what is, in many people's minds, the world's preeminent music festival.

Sir Roger Norrington – conducting the Last Night for the first time – exuded the ideal juxtaposition of humility and humour at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Famous (or infamous, depending on which side you take) for '[putting] modern players in touch with the historical style of the music they play', there was seemingly little – if any – restriction on the amount of vibrato that string players were permitted. (Indeed, Norrington's request for the audience to sing Land of Hope and Glory with greater vocal oscillation was wonderfully ironic.) However, his strict classicism was felt in the concert's opening piece, Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, Op. 43. This account, not nearly as fiery as the legend to which it refers, was driven by the strings' scintillating semiquavers, with the potentially dominant brass section playing an understated supporting role.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was the evening's star soloist, appearing in no fewer than six numbers that included operatic excerpts from Wagner, Puccini and Verdi. 'Wie Todesahnung Dämm'rung … O du, mein holder Abendstern' from Tannhäuser was notable for Terfel's excellent diction and Norrington's adeptly elicited accompaniment, though it took a while for the former's lower register to limber up. The sadness of Wolfram von Eschenbach quickly gave way to the clandestine scheming of Scarpia, manifested in a conniving account of 'Tre sbirri, una carrozza' from Tosca. Following a twenty-minute break, Terfel re-emerged almost unrecognisable as Falstaff, fully made up and kitted out. This is arguably the role with which Terfel is most readily associated, and he showed us precisely why in a characteristically larger-than-life performance of 'Ehi! paggio! … L'onore! Ladri!' that drew rapturous applause.

Whilst Terfel's makeup was being applied, the auditorium was treated to a rare performance of Beethoven's Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra (effectively a piano concerto forerunner of the Ninth Symphony's final movement). French pianist Hélène Grimaud was an assured and relaxed protagonist at the keyboard, exchanging smiles with the prommers during moments of rest. Her technique and musicianship cannot be questioned, though the rather odd decision to amplify the piano can be. The delay between the acoustic piano sound and its electronic reproduction, though small, was palpable on all but the quietest of notes, and was probably the culprit in the sometimes muddy texture that the instrument produced. The BBC Symphony Chorus, whose earlier contributions in the Puccini had been a tad untidy, was resplendent in its delivery of Christoph Kuffner's exultant case for music and the arts, and the six vocal soloists were strikingly anchored by the glittering tone of soprano Anna Leese.

Terfel and Grimaud returned after the intermission for a performance of Vaughan Williams' Silent Noon, in which the singer's beautiful though somewhat matter-of-fact delivery was overshadowed by the pianist's sensuous accompaniment. Before later lending his voice to Arne's Rule Britannia, Terfel performed a medley of four folk songs – one from each country within the United Kingdom – arranged for solo baritone, chorus and orchestra by Chris Hazell. Competent though unspectacular at first, the work grew in stature as it progressed, with a wondrously atmospheric transition from Loch Lomondto the nostalgic Cariad Cyntaf and a delightfully haughty romp through Molly Malone complete with rambunctious audience participation.

This was the first of two works commissioned for the concert, the second being Anna Meredith's froms, an ambitious five-minute piece in which the satellite technology allowed musicians in the Royal Albert Hall to achieve a musical collaboration with those in all four Proms in the Park venues. Each of the contributions from Hyde Park, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast were represented by a different speaker in the Albert Hall. Some of Meredith's ideas made for entertaining listening, particularly the work's infectious foundational syncopated motif and the raucous percussion in Hyde Park that drove the music forward. However, whereas the charm of Hazell's medley might have a degree of staying power, Meredith's composition smacked of a typical Hollywood blockbuster – impressive special effects, but little in terms of substance.

The audio-visual pyrotechnics continued in Henry Wood's Fanfares, in which the potential weaknesses of such technology were revealed. Following the BBCSO's opening gambit, the Royal Marines' return salvo from Hyde Park was strikingly flat by comparison, causing a collective, yet good-natured cringe from those of us in the auditorium. The Albert Hall audience was then treated to a delightfully perky rendition of Vaughan Williams' Sea Songs – which cannot be said for the rather bland account of Denza's Finiculì, finiculà that opened the second half, a nondescript melody that not even Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration could rescue. Thankfully, however, as the evening drew to a close, Elgar's evergreen march in D major – which preceded the singing of Jerusalem and the Naitonal Anthem – was played with an appropriately large dose of pomp, given the circumstances.  

By William Norris