The Second to Last Night of the Proms – Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Wear a silly hat, wave a flag and maybe the cameras will
spot you. Then Mom will see you on TV 10,000 miles away. The Second-to-Last
Night though, is the “real” Last Night for music lovers and
it’s traditionally observed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Justly so, for there is no music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than
this wonderful symphony. “Alle Menschen werden Br¸der !” All men
shall be brothers. No wonder it’s the theme song of the European
Community. In these troubled times, Schiller’s message is even more
relevant. Since this Prom is broadcast worldwide and available online, it
will reach wherever technology permits – a universal experience that
crosses boundaries, bringing people together for a moment of communal

A pity then that the performance was so lacklustre. If ever there was an
opportunity to let a performance rip open with exhilaration this would have
been it ! The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus are so well versed they
managed to create a frisson, but the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, under their
chief conductor Giannandrea Noseda were rather laboured and sedate. The
pressure of being so high profile must be intimidating, but this music is so
vivid that it hardly matters whether it’s note perfect, as long as it
conveys the sense of joyous, enthusiasm. One of the most interesting
performances I’ve heard was by the West-East Divan Orchestra, some of
whom are as young as ten years old. Technically they weren’t brilliant,
but they understood the radical message of Schiller’s text and why
Beethoven set it with such affirmation. The baritone Iain Patterson, was
impressive, which is was good for his part dominates the other soloists
despite the aesthetic that shapes the ensemble. His voice filled the
stadium-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with ease. Still, the Choral
Symphony never fails to pack a punch and the atmosphere was so charged with a
sense of occasion that when the capacity audience of 7500 people roared
approval, it was quite an experience.

Wagner’s Prelude from Parsifal can create an aura, like
dawn, before a large programme, but here it was too studied to create any
sense of anticipation. This might be fatal in an opera performance, but at
this Prom, it was followed by two true relative rarities, Penderecki’s
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, segued without a break into
Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang.. Yet again, it was the music
that made an impact, rather than the way it was realised. Noseda’s
right and left hands rarely diverge, favouring slow, imprecise gestures that
emphasise the stretch of lines rather than the structure. This worked rather
well with the Penderecki piece with its prolonged low humming and circular
“wind” themes, sounds that are eerie because they are mechanical
and unrelenting. If the horror in the piece was lost, merging it with
Beethoven’s lament “Sanft wie du lebtest hast du
vollendet.” gave a rationale to the muted treatment. But surely no-one
can possibly suggest that being blown up at Hiroshima was “a gentle
ending” ?

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven (1820) by Joseph Karl Stieler
product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 9; Elegsiche Gesang
Richard Wagner: Prelude from Parsifal
Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
product_by=Emma Bell, Jane Irwin, Timothy Robinson, Iain Patterson, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, BBC Philharmonic, Giannandrea Noseda (cond.)
12 September 2008, Royal Albert Hall, London