The Last Night of the Proms 1994

Author: 
Ivan March

The Last Night of the Proms 1994

  • Toccata and Fugue
  • Belshazzar's Feast
  • Marimba spiritual
  • Thaïs, Méditation
  • Pomp and Circumstance, No. 1 in D (1901)
  • Fantasia on British Sea Songs
  • Rule Britannia
  • Jerusalem

Since my days as a promenader during the late 1940s and early 1950s (when a Promenade Season Ticket cost 50 shillings—£2 50 and included the first and last nights!), the livelier members of the audience have become more noisily obstreperous and distinctly vulgar in their humour, particularly on the ritual of the ''Last Night''. This is all very well if you are there, or watching the proceedings on TV, but it undermines almost all pleasure from repeated listenings on CD.
This particular concert aptly celebrated the hundredth season by opening with a splendid account of Sir Henry Wood's audacious and marvellously effective orchestration of Bach's D minor Toccata and Fugue. It is comparable to Stokowski's famous version, with which it has much in common; indeed it perhaps has even more charm in its colouring of the running fugue. The arrangement was originally attributed to a Paul Klenovsky (a Russian pupil of Glazunov) and only after it had been well received did Wood acknowledge it as his own work, no doubt with a twinkle of satisfaction. The recording is perhaps the best ever made in the Royal Albert Hall, a gloriously resonant yet never clouded sound-picture with a brilliantly natural upper range and a sonorously resounding bass.
When we move on to Andrew Davis's dramatic and richly eloquent account of Belshazzar's Feast, the glorious contribution from the chorus shows how perfectly suited this vibrant Walton masterpiece is to the hall's famous acoustics. From the fat-sounding opening brass and the commandingly clear ''Thus spake Isaiah'' from the BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus, the listener is gripped, Bryn Terfel's resonant ''If I forget thee'' is as telling as his cry ''Babylon is a great city'', and the choral responses to ''Praise ye'' send a tingle to the nape of the neck, as indeed does the darkly sinister ''writing hand'' sequence. All in all this is a great success, and so are Evelyn Glennie's spectacular marimba display and the unashamedly romantic Massenet interlude, with the chorus humming gently behind Michael Davis's seductive violin solo.
In Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance the promenaders begin to make real nuisances of themselves with appallingly distracting bangs and cracks then, just before the entry of the great melody (''I've got a tune that will knock 'em flat'', confided the composer to a friend), something causes a ripple of laughter in the audience and, though the melody itself produces heartfelt singing, one simply would not want to rehear this intrusion. However, far worse is to come in the engaging Sea Songs medley, where the close of the beautifully played cello solo, ''Tom Bowling'' is utterly ruined by a member of the audience, as is the end of ''Home sweet home''. Sir Henry allowed clapping in the ''Sailor's hornpipe'' and encouraged the singing of Rule Britannia but he would have been horrified by the utter lack of audience discipline achieved by Andrew Davis.
The addition of claps and whistling to ''See, the conquering hero comes!'' will be a matter of taste; but Rule Britannia, again with the resounding voice of Bryn Terfel, and Jerusalem, with vocal ardour from the audience and the richly expansive sound, cannot fail to thrill. If you want a memento of the 1994 ''Last Night'' it could hardly be better presented sonically than here. I wonder, though, what overseas purchasers of this disc will think of this exhibition by certain members of the British audience, which goes far beyond the bounds of youthful high spirits.'

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