Britten at the Last Night of the Proms – The Building of the House and The National Anthem

(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Programming for the Last Night of the Proms has changed radically in the last few decades. A quick look at the archive confirms that the last night in 1977, the first since Britten’s death, marked the composer’s passing with the Cantata Academica, part of a first half that included Walton’s Violin Concerto and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Overture di ballo and Pineapple Poll suite.

Now, with Proms in the Park and other assorted festivities, there are some items on the programme that you risk missing if you turn your back for a second – and this is where Britten snuck in. The composer would surely have baulked at a lot of Last Night sentiments – the more jingoistic ones at least – and I wonder how he would have reacted to the irony of being next to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending on this particular night?

We will never know of course, but a harlequin first half included these two pieces among eight, all presided over by a woman for the first time. It is so good to know that particular boundary no longer exists in classical music!

The sprawling program, in brief, included the surging new commission Masquerade from Anna Clyne, a brisk if matter of fact Die Meistersingers Overture to cover the Wagner anniversary, and a vivid performance of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, with Iestyn Davies shining in a solo normally reserved for trebles. Alsop, a pupil of Bernstein, was on familiar territory here – as she was for a breezy if slightly slower Overture to Candide and a softly moving Garden Grow. Nigel Kennedy offered his typically searching interpretation of A Lark Ascending, where profound meditative levels were achieved, along with a couple of unusual but perfectly valid note emphases.

Britten’s brief turn in the spotlight came towards the end of each half. First it was The Building of The House, a five-minute overture written to mark the opening of his own Snape Maltings concert hall in 1967. An excitable piece, it was very well performed here, a quick fire burst initiated by percussion before the orchestra excitedly exchanged musical conversations, as if finding their seats in the new hall, before the chorus added their own full-blooded finish, singing the words of Psalm 127 as set in English.

The concert continued with some exceptional Massenet and Rossini arias from Joyce DiDonato, then more observation of the Proms themes through Granville Bantock (The Sea Reivers) and fellow anniversary composer George Lloyd (the HMS Trinidad March), their maritime moments replacing the traditional Sir Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Then it was on to the traditional ‘medley’ of Rule, Britannia!, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 and Parry’s Jerusalem, which was prefaced by an expertly judged speech from Alsop.

And then, finally, Britten’s arrangement of The National Anthem. The anthem quickly cast its spell, with a hushed reverence for its first verse, beautifully sung by the choir and equally well observed by the audience, before the swell and masterful modulation to the second, which rang out exultantly. It was a reminder that a truly great arranger is one who can bring something new to a familiar piece, without losing respect for the original.

It was also a wonderful way to finish a highly successful and originally thought out BBC Proms season. Where Britten is concerned his music has been enriched by the performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Cadogan Hall – and Proms director Roger Wright’s thoughtful planning and programming has gone an awfully long way.

You can listen to the two halves of the Last Night of the 2013 Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, on the BBC Proms website here (first half) and here (second half).

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