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The last nights of the Proms

Royal Albert Hall
09/04/1999 -  
4 September 1999
Giya Kancheli V & V, Arvo Pärt Tabula rasa, Antonio Vivaldi The Four Seasons, Astor Piazzolla arr. Desyatnikov The Four Seasons
Gidon Kremer (violin/director), Ula Ulijona (viola), Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra
5 September 1999
James MacMillanQuickening
Hilliard Ensemble, Westminster Cathedral Choristers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Davis (conductor)

Vivaldi's Four Seasons was the crowd-pleaser for the penultimate Saturday night of the Proms. But the programme turned out to be a succinct celebration of the genius of Gidon Kremer, whose ensemble of young musicians from the Baltic states played one work commissioned by him and one by a composer whose rediscovery Kremer has promoted. The commission was Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa, a pleasing neo-baroque work, radical only in the Soviet Union, where Tchaikovskian "realism" was the order of the era.

The rediscovered composer was Astor Piazzolla, whose Four seasons alternated with Vivaldi's, starting with Vivaldi's Spring and ending with Piazzolla's. The contrasts between the were obvious -- rural, northern hemisphere Vivaldi writing for baroque string orchestra and urban, southern hemisphere Piazzolla writing energetic counterpoint for bandoneon. But Kremer's ensemble found such wonderful colours and textures that there were moments during Vivaldi's autumn and winter when you might for a moment wonder which composer you were listening to. The first notes of Vivaldi's Spring on the piano at the end of Piazzolla's turned out to be genuine homage, not just a charming gesture.

The concert began with Giya Kancheli's V & V, a brief duet between the violin and the recorded voice of the Georgian singer Gamlet Gonashvili. It ended with two extremely funny encores, The unanswered call, an only slightly over-the-top parody of a new Russian work similar to  V & V, rudely interrupted by mobile phones, and a virtuoso set of variations on Happy birthday to you.

James MacMillan's Quickening, which had its world premiere on Sunday 5 September, was grand in conception, but made Tippett seem profound. A setting of a sequence of poems by Michael Symmonds Roberts, it explored the themes of pregnancy and birth, using both evocative physical images and religious images and music, with an initial glossolalia, the bubba's babble, played against the structure of the music. On a Mahlerian scale, it somehow seemed a contrived and cerebral way to explore the small and messy, though profoundly moving, origin of a human life.

The last night of the Proms on 11 September had a programme that tried seriously to close the various themes of the season, but gave up because of the compulsory frivolity. Nielson's overture to Maskarade began the first half in a suitably celebratory way, and Gillian Weir's performance of Poulenc's Concerto for organ, strings and timpani ended it on an stirring note. In between, Willard White, a handsome devil indeed, sang a set of Mephistophelean arias, and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Giro was a nod towards the ascent of humanity and preserved the fiction that this was a proper concert programme.

In the second half, it was tosh as usual. White sang Ol' man river, using Paul Robson's first adaptation of the words. Jeremy Irons failed to sing a set of Noel Coward songs, but waved a cigarette holder languidly and ended up with a surprisingly moving, if tuneless, rendition of London pride. This elegaic (if desperately sentimental) view of the war-ruined city was a reminder that Elgar almost certainly had the ironic sense of the title Pomp and circumstance in mind. And in a juxtoposition that occurs every year, the fragment of real Handel in See the conqu'ring hero comes from Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea-Songs was incomparably more compelling than Arne's pseudo-Handelian Rule Britannia, sung by Williard White in a cummerbund the colours of the Jamaican flag and a red, white and blue bandana, and by several thousand idiots who couldn't even read the words correctly.

Andrew David said nothing much, Jerusalem was sung, followed by God save the Queen, and Auld lang syne a capella as the orchestra left. There were a fair number of British regional and Commonwealth flags among the thousands of union flags being waved, even a couple of Bavarian flags. It was all quite amiable but it went on for far too long and had very little to do with the uneven but outstanding music festival that began in July.

H.E. Elsom



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