By the skin of their teeth, the Proms are with us, live and in-person. It was a close-run thing. The fear was that for the second year in a row the Proms would be a sad ghostly affair, broadcast to online audiences only. Then came the joyous news that there would be a six-week season of nightly Proms for an audience of 1,000. Last week came the even more joyous news that the Proms would be running at full capacity.
Of course it’s not been easy. One can only imagine the atmosphere of fevered uncertainty and pent-up emotion in the planning office. Most days there’s news of a last-minute change to the schedule, as this Israeli conductor or that French organist discovers he can’t get past the quarantine and safety regulations thrown up by the pandemic. Proms director David Pickard cleverly turned uncertainty to advantage, by holding back the details of four “Mystery Proms” which were finally released on Friday morning.
And then, a few hours later, came the First Night. Spirits were momentarily dampened by having to rummage for proof of being Covid-free, and having bags searched, but once inside they soon rose again. The hall wasn’t packed but the audience had lost none of its anarchic jollity. “Have the Olympics over-run?” shouted one Prommer when the beginning was a tad delayed.
But then facetiousness was stilled as the enchanted sounds of Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music began. “Here we will sit and let the sound of music creep in our ears,” says the text from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and the music really did seem to steal over us, Elizabeth Llewellyn's tender soprano answered by the other three beautifully eloquent soloists and the BBC Singers high up in the choir stalls. It seemed exactly right for a festival emerging from hibernation, the music emerging almost timidly into being.
There was absolutely nothing timid about the second piece, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, despatched from the organ console high above the platform with stony decisiveness by Daniel Hyde.
That mighty organ sound pinned us to our seats, while one could see the string players striving to match the sound, but hardly hear them. Balance is always a problem with this piece, but here it seemed more so than usual, and the witty repartee between soloist and orchestra didn’t quite come off.
After the interval we were momentarily wafted back to the gently ecstatic world of Vaughan Williams, in James MacMillan’s brand new Proms commission When Soft Voices Die. MacMillan kept the four solo voices and orchestra of Vaughan Williams’s piece but not the chorus to fashion a tender meditation on transience and mortality, centred on two famous poems of Shelley.
At first the mood of the music seemed pulled more towards MacMillan’s familiar folk-inflected spirituality, each of the four soloists uttering Shelley’s regretful lines against a backdrop of spacious, starry-sky harmonies; only at the end, at the line ‘love itself shall slumber on’ did we get a hint of the rocking, drowsy English-pastoral vein that until then MacMillan had held firmly at a distance.
So far so good, but the best was saved until last. Dalia Stasevska, the young Finnish conductor on the podium, had until this point been content to guide things with skilful modesty. Now suddenly she came alive, shaping a performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony that had me absolutely on the edge of my seat. The sheer urgency of the music, the way it has to struggle against its own tendency to disintegration and find a path to heroic affirmation has rarely seemed so thrilling.
Hear or watch this Prom for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer. The Proms continue until September 11, all broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on the iPlayer. Tickets available at bbc.co.uk/proms or 020 7070 4441