Proms 2012: Playing at home

British ensembles have impressed at the Proms.

The Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms
The Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms. Photograph: Getty Images

The Proms is traditionally a big orchestra festival. Even more, it’s a festival of big international orchestras. The many BBC ensembles, the London orchestras, the Hallé and City of Birmingham Symphony may provide the meat and two veg of the schedule but it’s the visiting stars – seldom seen and still more seldom at affordable prices – that add the spice.

This season, orchestras from Berlin, Vienna, St Louis and São Paulo offer their different perspectives on classic repertoire. Yet we shouldn’t neglect those home-grown ensembles whose range of skills and styles have earned Britain a place on the international arts podium. Opera, early music, sweeping symphonic rhapsody – we have it all and the Proms gives us a chance to show it to the world.

Russian ballet scores from the London Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, are a Proms regular but this year’s Cinderellawas a first – a Proms premiere. Although regularly performed in excerpts, Prokofiev’s almost two-hour score has never before been heard in full. Ballet music in concert can be awkward but Gergiev ensured nothing was lost in translation.

What we missed in eye-ear synchronisation we gained in evocation and suggestion. Prokofiev’s ravishing string introduction to our heroine – hesitant and delicately tremulous – was as human as any dancer and underpinned by splendidly malignant harmonic stirrings. It always pays to listen to the brass in this ballet; whatever the melody is doing, these sardonic contrarians generally have a different opinion and the LSO’s section is as vividly dramatised as it gets. Gergiev’s affinity for the grotesque emerged in the gleeful caricatures of the Ugly Sisters and Stepmother, shrill, shrewish strings pecking and sniping persistently, but a more unexpected softness also took its turn for the Act III waltz and closing “Amoroso”.

Offering acoustic spectacle in place of the absent visuals, Gergiev banished Act II’s “onstage” band up into the gallery, creating a sonic duel between the rival forces that climaxed in the humour of Prokofiev’s final cadence – both groups determined to have the last word. Always polished but sometimes lacking the urgent, ardent edge of a group such as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (strong the night before), it was good to see the LSO taking risks here. Gergiev’s feisty tempos saw a couple of ensemble wobbles but imperfection was a cheap price to pay for drawing epic drama out of a fairytale miniature.

Drama is also a speciality for Robert Hollingworth and his vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini, who have previously transformed Monteverdi madrigals into a musical narrative (The Full Monteverdi) and whose concerts regularly make something vital and modern of their historical repertoire. I Fagiolini’s Late Night Prom this year, however, took us back in time, recreating a Italian Vespers service as it might have been heard in 1612. Singers were joined by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and woodwind from the City Musick, as well as recorded bell chimes to transform the secular space of the Royal Albert Hall into a cathedral.

Early music has a troubled relationship with the Albert Hall. A solo Bach partita for violin can resonate with absolute clarity right up into the gallery, while the medium-sized forces of a chamber orchestra can disappear almost entirely. This was an elegant conception of a concert but the acoustic impact of its repertoire was lost. There was a virtuosic Grandi duet for cornett (Gawain Glenton) and sackbut (Emily White), and a Monteverdi “Salve Regina” for the tenors Nicholas Hurndall Smith and Matthew Long that was intricately ornamented, but the larger-scale works by Gabrieli and Viadana were neither sufficiently intimate nor possessed of the raw force that can work so well in this repertoire.

Short on numbers, Hollingworth eschewed any spatial choreography with his choirs, which was a shame. Italy and its cori spezzati invented surround-sound effects, which might have exploited the sonic potential of the Albert Hall rather than struggling against it.

English opera was reinvented in 1945 with the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes by English National Opera (as they would later become), and the company’s ownership of this masterpiece has persisted through to David Alden’s 2009 production. That was a theatrical triumph in the opera house; in concert, performed by the ENO Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Edward
Gardner, it was the drama of Britten’s music that overwhelmed.

Stuart Skelton’s Grimes is devastating – an overgrown man-child, bewildered by his own strength. His barely-breathed vision of “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades” chilled the soul – a coup de théâtrematched visually here by his final walk to death, striding out into the sea of Prommers until we lost him among the crowd.

Gardner’s account of the score has lost none of its bite or pace and was supported by an ENO chorus on thrilling form as the murderous mob. Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen was almost fully recovered from the vocal lapse of her Covent Garden outing in the role and was matched for dramatic conviction by Iain Paterson’s bluff Bulstrode and Leigh Melrose’s disturbing drug-peddler Ned Keene. Only overeager applause between the hammer-blow cries of “Peter Grimes” spoilt the mastery and emotional control of this performance.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman’s classical music critic.