The late night Prom on the 9th August promised a lively evening of classic musical tunes from a more innocent era, that of the Ruritanian operetta as personified by composer and actor Ivor Novello.
Born in Wales in 1893 as David Ivor Davies, the young Novello adopted his mother’s maiden name, perhaps as it sounded much more grandiose and suitable for the theatre. Although primarily a writer of music for songs, he made a name for himself as an actor in the silent cinema, notably in the Rat trilogy, in Noel Coward’s ‘The Vortex’, and in two films for the young Alfred Hitchcock. His musicals were extremely popular in their day but are rarely revived outside of amateur groups these days, and the songs, although pleasant, could stretch a dedicated evening in the wrong hands.
So, with the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder, two excellent singers took on the task of bringing Novello’s songs to a 21st century audience, with the help of Simon Callow as intermittent narrator. The tenor Toby Spence started proceedings with a rousing rendition of ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, but he also provided, with piano accompaniment only, a rarity, Novello’s last song, ‘Pray For Me’, a quiet muse on mortality. The charming soprano Sophie Bevan gave froth and glamour to the songs associated with likes of Mary Ellis, Dorothy Dickson, and Olive Gilbert – ‘I Can Give You The Starlight’, ‘Someday My Heart Will Awake’, and the two duets with Spence: ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ and ‘Why Isn’t It You?’.
My verdict – a triumph. Callow’s tongue in cheek comments on Novello’s life and career held the interest, and singers and orchestra were in perfect harmony. The only thing missing was the witty and jaunty ‘Primrose’, one of my favourite of Novello’s songs which match humour with melody. But a small quibble on such a glamorous night.