At the risk of unwanted revelation I can say that I’ve had more melting moments in the Royal Albert Hall than anywhere else. I’ve sweltered and wilted and sauna-ed through Ring cycles and symphonies, new works and musicals, requiems and Rule Britannias. Not this year. The BBC Proms 2022 season is the coolest place to be. The Albert Hall has cracked it, at last, with a new ventilation system, upgraded in lockdown, that works. It cost £6.8m.
This is not only important for audiences, who now have the chance to concentrate without an excess of fanning or fainting. Musicians themselves can perform without the unpredictable distraction of strings snapping, pegs slipping or tuning running awry. In a Radio 3 interview, a clarinettist described having to shut his eyes to play there in the past, because of sweat pouring down his face. Since wind players are always, in effect, soloists, we can only imagine the nightmare.
The problem last week was how to get to the hall. Monday’s severe heat warnings meant a depleted but enthusiastic crowd turned up for the first of two consecutive BBC Philharmonic Proms, this one with the orchestra’s former chief conductor, Juanjo Mena. Lawrence Power was star soloist in James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto (2013), dedicated to him. This expansive work spits and glitters, with restless activity in the orchestra and vivid ensembles of lower strings, flute, brass, percussion, always allowing the viola to sing out. The orchestra’s long association with MacMillan showed in expert playing (they have recorded the concerto with Power and Martyn Brabbins).
All this endeavour was as nothing compared with the demands made on the soloist, who has to sprint the equivalent of 10 laps to everyone else’s one. Power, who plays an Italian instrument from 1610, achieves an expressive range of limitless variety, from muscular to lyrical to ethereal. His encore, the Imitations of Bells from Johann Paul von Westhoff’s Sonata No 3 in D minor (50 minutes in on BBC Sounds), turned the viola into a shimmering carillon.
The Sinfonia of London is made up of leading principals who want to play for Wilson. You can hear their devotion
The MacMillan was the centrepiece of a Prom that included Webern’s mysterious arrangement of Bach’s Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering and Bruckner’s Symphony No 6. The symphony, the Austrian composer’s oddest but arguably most appealing, had a restrained leanness of texture – heft and richness being the more typical Brucknerian order. It suited the mood and circumstance of the day. This majestic music needs a full hall, with audience and musicians an equal part of the equation: that’s the thrilling dynamic the Proms, with standing room for 1,000 (still only £6), can deliver in more normal conditions. If the strings kept too much in reserve, after the marathon of travel from Salford, and rehearsal, who can blame them. The chorales of brass, essential to all Bruckner, blasted out in visionary splendour.
The outstanding Prom so far – and if there’s a better one all summer we can call this a good year – was last Saturday’s by the Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson. In an all-English programme, the orchestra’s principal flute, Adam Walker, showed his artistry in Huw Watkins’s Flute Concerto (2013). The strings created a strata-like depth and resonance in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (with glowing viola solos from the Ukrainian-born Andriy Viytovych, usually principal viola at the Royal Opera House). Bax’s Tintagel – not heard at the Proms since 1989; fashions change – roared and crashed spectacularly. The rapid mechanism of Walton’s Partita for Orchestra whirred in speedy, hyperactive intricacy.
The final work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, was one of the best, most alert and detailed performances you could hope for. Wilson, whose gestures on the podium are so unassuming he appears to do nothing more than beat time, had scrutinised the score, and asked probing questions about every familiar phrase, making it fresh. The Sinfonia of London, mostly a recording ensemble, is made up of leading principals or chamber musicians who want to play for Wilson. You can hear their devotion.
The Proms season had launched in massed style the night before with Verdi’s Requiem: strong soloists (notably Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha and Jennifer Johnston), and a rousing performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Crouch End Festival Chorus, conducted by Sakari Oramo (heard on Radio 3; also available, along with the London Sinfonia’s Prom 2, on BBC iPlayer).
Verdi was also the choice for the Royal Opera’s end-of-season concert performance of an early work, Attila (1846). With a fate-and-revenge plot set in the Adriatic cAD453, stirring choruses and a few outstanding arias, it’s decidedly melodramatic. The Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov, as chief Hun of the title, can do ferocious and heartfelt, and did, with ringing top notes and, given the soloists were singing from scores, a powerful dramatic presence. Simon Keenlyside, terrific as Ezio, was on fire – well, we all were; the ROH air con doesn’t quite match RAH standards – with Maria José Siri a gutsy, terrifying Odabella and Stefan Pop (replacing Joseph Calleja) as Foresto.
The chorus impressively mastered this unfamiliar work, bursting with assurance and elan. They, and the orchestra too, made the evening go with a zip. The high point was the house conducting debut of Speranza Scappucci, who sliced and cut the air as if with a sabre, jumping and crouching way beyond the call of duty but thrillingly bringing out the work’s saturated colours.
Seaside festivals, or those with sharp ears behind the planning, can be a showcase for rising talent. Thomas Kelly was a prize winner in the Leeds international piano competition 2021. Still only 23, this British player gave an exceptional recital at the Deal Music and Arts festival, an annual July fortnight rich with high-quality music making. It was the kind of day that used to be called hot. Unfazed, Kelly tackled the enormous, so-called “Eroica” Variations – strictly, Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue Op 35 – with imagination and pinpoint accuracy. The unusual choice of Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza, Op 38 No 1, pensive and lyrical, made programming sense when you remember that the Russian composer revered Beethoven, and like his hero built his music organically out of tiny ideas.
Kelly finished with Stravinsky’s The Firebird in the wild transcription by Guido Agosti. It demands outrageous virtuosity, hands racing up and down the keyboard, in crashing glory or pianissimo slides. Kelly, in demeanour, was a model of calm. All the razzle dazzle came in the finger work. His teacher was the quietly admired and formidable pianist Andrew Ball, who died earlier this month. How proud Ball would have been to hear his brilliant pupil. Watch for the name.
Star ratings (out of five)
Prom 5: Bruckner’s Sixth ★★★★
Prom 2: John Wilson conducts the Sinfonia of London ★★★★★
Thomas Kelly ★★★★★