Royal Albert Hall, London
IF the self-identifying “traditionalists” barking about Rule Britannia at the Last Night really knew and cared about the BBC Proms, rather than merely being attention-seeking blowhards, they might have noted an imbalance in the selection of the music in the live concerts that has made it to the limited season behind closed doors at the Royal Albert Hall.
Although the number of events that stray far from the classical heartland of the “world’s largest music festival” has increased markedly in recent years, it has never been proportionately as large as in the face of the pandemic. Fine though the concerts featuring Anoushka Shankar and Laura Marling have been, their distance from the established Western orchestral music canon that Sir Henry Wood created the Proms to celebrate is unarguable, even if exactly how much of any year’s programme in the 21st century would have tickled his fancy could probably fuel a healthy debate.
It is not so very long since the programme played by period music specialists the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which was originally to have featured Alina Ibrigamova duetting with Nicola Benedetti on a sequence of double concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, would have been a specialist taste in the Proms programme. This year, however, it looked almost mainstream, so it is important to remember that such music remains substantially the province of a few dedicated.
Of the two violinists, it is Ibrigamova who has more form in the world of baroque bows and gut strings, particularly with the quartet she leads, the Chiaroscuro, while Benedetti, with her Elgar concerto album recently topping the classical charts, is associated in the public mind with much later repertoire. So when Ibrigamova pulled out of the concert following the death of her father, LSO emeritus double bassist Rinat Ibrigamov, Benedetti’s role as sole headliner was a weighty one.
Contemporaries at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the violinists had played the Bach double under Menuhin’s baton in their teens (in Paris, at the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but the rest of the programme was new repertoire, which Benedetti now found herself playing with soloists from the ranks of the orchestra, Rudolfo Richter, Kati Debretzeni and Matthew Truscott. Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys added a Vivaldi oboe double to a programme that also included a Concerto Grosso and Passacaglia by Handel, and – rarest of all – a Concerto Grosso by Tyneside composer Charles Avison.
If the ensemble was a little ragged in places, the projection of the group’s sound on television was far superior to that achieved for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo at the beginning of the series, if not quite as sumptuous as that the of the LSO and Simon Rattle at the start of the week. Benedetti’s fearlessness and self-confidence, under the circumstances, was matched by the authority of her playing, and her sympathetic partnering of the others who had stepped up to the plate. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was the Bach that seemed to fare least well of the works, missing the partner Benedetti knew.
The Prom concert was the first of a run of very similar programmes that the OAE and Benedetti then took to Snape Maltings and Saffron Hall. As events sadly turned out, it would probably have benefitted from coming after the out-of-town run.