The BBC Proms always seems a ‘British’ affair whatever the music on offer, and this First Night proved that to the hilt with no fewer than four English composers represented with five pieces, each conducted by a different person in a sort of classical homage to the Olympic relay.
The programme was eclectic despite the geographical link – a new percussion and brass-heavy piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage (‘Canon Fever’), conducted by Edward Gardner’; Edward Elgar’s superb ‘In London Town’, with its playful instrument interplay, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; Frederick Delius’ setting of Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem ‘Sea Drift’, sung by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Sir Mark Elder; Michael Tippett’s ‘Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles’, with its folk melodies and Irish jig section, conducted by Martyn Brabbins; and finally Elgar’s overblown ‘Coronation Ode’, originally composed for the crowning of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and revived for their successors George and Mary, conducted by Gardner again. It ends with an early version of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ which seems rather out of place so early in the season. Joining the chorus to perform the ‘Ode’ were Susan Gritton, a light soprano, Sarah Connolly, a feisty mezzo, Robert Murray, a melodious tenor, and Gerald Finley, a serviceable bass-baritone.
The conducting ‘relay’ was rather novel but didn’t really work, and I would have liked to see more of Norrington in particular, who is a fascinating conductor to watch, particularly with reportoire he obviously knows so well and enjoys. Still, in this Olympic year the Proms should be applauded for trying something different, and for presenting a programme of music from ‘home’.