Kate Chisholm

Festival madness

The Proms (BBC Radio 3); Latitude Festival (BBC Radio 4); A tribute to Charles Wheeler (BBC Radio 4)

The Proms (BBC Radio 3); Latitude Festival (BBC Radio 4); A tribute to Charles Wheeler (BBC Radio 4)

It was totally over-the-top, the first-night concert of this year’s Proms season, the 114th since Henry Wood set out in 1895 to educate the musical palate of the nation. It was almost as if the programme was designed by the new Proms director, Roger Wright, to confound the critics with its weird retrievals from the musical archives and mélange of titbits from Messiaen and Elliott Carter, composers who are to be specially featured this season. But it was wonderfully, gloriously celebratory, and also entirely in keeping with the Victorian roots and setting of this Summer-Festival-To-Beat-All-Festivals. Seventy-six concerts in 58 days, some of them free, all of them cheaply available for those with strong legs, most of them deeply serious about music — and not a tent in sight. Last Friday’s first night took us back in time to the blustery pomp and confidence of those Victorian pre-world-wars days, and yet it was also fuelled by musical intensity.

When those first dramatic chords burst out from the Royal Albert Hall organ in Richard Strauss’s ‘Festliches Praeludium’ it was impossible not to smile. Minutes later we were taken on quite a different emotional journey in Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’, written just months before the composer’s death. There was something in this programme for everyone — the fairground bluster of that extraordinarily powerful organ in the Strauss (and also even more histrionically in Messiaen’s ‘Le Nativité du Seigneur’) leading into the refined delicacy of Mozart and Beethoven. Not, though, an easy concert to appreciate at home, listening on Radio Three. You had to be there, to witness the atmosphere of the ‘occasion’. It was too bombastic and communal an experience for the radio waves to draw you in.

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