Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Last Night of the Proms, Derngate, Northampton, June 12th 2011

Last Night of the PromsThe Royal Philharmonic’s Orchestral Season 2010-11 at the Derngate in Northampton came to a close on Sunday night with a Last Night of the Proms programme. An excuse for lots of short pieces of musical brilliance, rather like a Works Outing at Classic FM. The orchestra was conducted by Stephen Bell in a bright and breezy mood, encouraging a bit of audience singing during the well known Last Night numbers, but also doing his day job of keeping those RPO-types nicely in synch.

Stephen Bell One of the best performances of the night came with the first piece, Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, where the drums and percussion played their parts with real zest and musicality. It was a wonderful start to the night. It was going to be a fun evening for the percussion, as they had lots of opportunities to make their mark on many of the pieces on offer. A good example of this was Strauss’ Champagne Polka, which had a very amusing “popping cork” sound effect!

Rebecca BottoneGuest soprano was Rebecca Bottone. Normally one associates big-voiced opera singers with big-framed people, so that when they sing “they call me little Mimi” or something like that one has to suspend one’s disbelief somewhat. I have no idea how Rebecca Bottone gets such a full and beautiful voice out of such a tiny frame! Her performances were all superb, and included Song to the Moon from Rusalka by Dvořák, and O mio babbino caro by Puccini (which, as usual, elicited a slight tear on my part); but I wanted to pay particular compliments to her performance of Sempre libera from La Traviata which was sprinkled with fantastic coloratura effects, and also to say that it was wonderful, as always, to hear Rule Britannia decently sung.

One piece I was specifically looking forward to hearing was Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, as it was one of the earliest pieces of classical music I remember as a child and it has always had a special place in my heart. I’ve heard this piece played slowish and fastish. When you play it slowish you get the full resonance from the violins and horns, and you wallow in its eeriness. When you play it fastish what you lose in musicality you gain in spine tingling thrill. Stephen Bell went for the slowish option, and it was very enjoyable. I did think at one stage that the sound got a little soggy but it was only briefly. I was always going to be hard to please with this one.

Other highlights of the evening were a superb performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings – you know that bit where the violins get higher and higher and shriller and shriller – and then you suddenly get left in a vacuum – that was most effective and definitely gave you goose bumps; and a very lively and entertaining performance of the Liberty Bell March, where once again the percussion had a lot of fun clanging.

Victoria SimonsenWhen it came to the final sequence of traditional Last Night pieces, they played two elements of the Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe. Of course the hornpipe got everyone happy clapping along, but the cello solo on the Tom Bowling was absolutely magnificent. I reckon from my programme that must have been played by Victoria Simonsen and she was a complete star.

Finally we got a very rewarding encore in the form of the Great Gate at Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, again another chance for the percussion to play at doorchimes to thrilling effect. The whole orchestra sounded crisp, powerful and triumphant.

Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that one aspect of a programme like this, that has 17 individual pieces of music, plus an encore, is that nothing lasts long enough really to get your teeth into, or to lose yourself in your imagination. Not a criticism, just an observation, and rather an obvious one too. The RPO have provided us with plenty of other opportunities to dig deep into more searching and challenging pieces though, and I know will continue to do so in the future.

So thank you to the Royal Philharmonic for a wonderful season, and we already have our names down for five concerts for the 2011-12 season which contains some thrillingly famous soloists and some great works to enjoy. Bring it on!

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