The Last Night as it should be

Sunday was “Henry Wood Day” and featured two Proms. The first was a recreation of the Last Night’s programme from 1910. This contained a large number of shorter items, a tradition continued in Last Nights to this day. The Prom was incredibly long, at three and a half hours, and strangely the interval wasn’t until two hours or more in, meaning a long stand for prommers!

The BBC Concert Orchestra returned to give a splendid performance, and were conducted by Paul Daniel, who has presided over the real Last Night in the past. Daniel was dressed in a velvet tailcoat, and was supposedly playing the part of Henry Wood. During the Paganini Moto perpetuo turned to look at the audience and pulled a face, while continuing to wave his baton. The music was all good, and featured some more unusual items and songs, for example Wagner’s Kaisermarsch as well as favourites that are still often heard today such as L’Arlésienne and Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4.

Top cellist Steven Isserlis performed the one new work in the line-up, which had been added to maintain Wood’s belief of including new music. The work in question was based on the only surviving part of Vaughan Williams’s unfinished cello concerto, and going by what  we heard, it’s a pity we were deprived of the full concerto. Composer David Matthews came on stage, but it was easy to imagine he was Vaughan Williams coming to take his bow. Isserlis is an interesting performer to watch. At times his posture and the way he threw his upper body made him look like a rag doll, yet one that could play with such expression. A nice touch when he left the stage was that he went out of his way to shake hands with the orchestra’s principal cellist, sitting on the opposite side of the conductor: the fraternity of cellists, perhaps.

But for me the real highlight of the concert was the chance to hear, and participate in, Wood’s own Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. While the programme claims the Fantasia is an “indispensable” part of the Last Night and has been “included in most Last Nights” since 1908, what it fails to mention is that the BBC decided to drop this work just a few years ago, so it’s no longer heard at all. This has already had an effect on the continuity of Proms traditions: a pair of students standing near me seemed unfamiliar with how they were supposed to join in with the Fantasia. Anyway, it was great fun, with the handkerchiefs coming out for “Tom Bowling”, trying to keep up with the “Hornpipe”, humming “There’s no place like home”, and whistling along to “See the conquering hero comes!”, before singing the chorus of “Rule, Britannia!”. BBC if you are listening: please reinstate this work (in it’s original version as heard tonight) in the Last Night in future years, or failing that, programme the Fantasia for another Prom in each season to allow prommers to maintain these traditions for future generations, and to have a bit of fun. The theme to Pirates of the Caribbean is not a satisfactory substitute.

The Prom finished with the National Anthem, and it was touching to see a nearby French couple heartily joining in singing the British anthem. In fact, as they were reading the words from the programme, they sang the second verse, which was more than some of the British prommers managed!

There were no speeches, just a brief word from Paul Daniel to tell us speeches started at a much later date!

The second Prom of the day featured the Ulster Orchestra under Paul Watkins playing music premièred by, or otherwise associated with, Henry Wood. It opened with a fanfare Arthur Bliss wrote for Wood’s 75th birthday, which as fate would have it turned out to be his last. Some of the other works were familiar, in particular the ever-popular Karelia Suite by Sibelius, which received its UK première in 1906. There was also Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto, which was given a sparkling performance by Steven Osborne. This work by a young Rachmaninov had its UK première in 1900, although tonight we heard the 1917 revision. It’s not as well known as Rachmaninov’s other concertos, but is still well worth a look, containing hints of what is to come in the famous second and third concertos.

There were also several less familiar works that are certainly worth a listen, including Bax’s lively London Pageant, written for the coronation of King George VI, and Parry’s Symphonic Variations, which are said to have inspired Elgar’s famous Enigma Variations, although as the “symphonic” title suggests, Parry’s work is played all as one, rather than as a set of short pieces.

All together, it was a great day of music, one of the best of the season, if rather a marathon at nearly six hours! It was a selection of music that really embodied the way the Proms should be, which is perhaps unsurprising given that most of the music was, one way or another, chosen by Henry Wood himself.

Prom 67
The Flying Dutchman – overture
Beethoven Rondino for wind octet
Paganini, arr. Pitt Moto perpetuo
Musorgsky, orch. Henry Wood The Peep-Show
Bizet L’ Arlésienne – Suites Nos. 1 & 2 (excerpts)
David Matthews/Vaughan Williams Dark Pastoral – based on the surviving fragment of the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’s Cello Concerto (1942) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Dvořák Rondo in G minor
Beethoven Overture ‘Leonore’ No. 3
Thomas Mignon – ‘Connais-tu le pays?’
Dvořák, orch. Henry Wood Humoresque in G flat major, Op. 101 No. 7
Wagner Kaisermarsch
Wood Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
German Merrie England – ‘Who were the Yeomen of England?’
Forster Mifanwy
Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in G major
The National Anthem
Jennifer Larmore mezzo-soprano
Sergei Leiferkus baritone
Steven Isserlis cello
BBC Concert Orchestra
Paul Daniel conductor

Prom 68
Birthday Fanfare for Sir Henry Wood
Bax London Pageant
Howell Lamia
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor (1917 version)
Sibelius Karelia Suite
Parry Symphonic Variations
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin – Waltz and Polonaise
Steven Osborne piano
Ulster Orchestra
Paul Watkins conductor

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