Proms 2015: There's nothing better than late night Bach

The unexpected intimacy that performers like Alina Ibragimova can achieve in a space as vast as the Royal Albert Hall is truly breathtaking.

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Late night Proms, usually starting around 10pm and finishing sometime before midnight, are the place where programmers let their hair down a bit and experiment. It’s where most of the things that set traditionalists harrumphing occur: the Ibiza prom, the grime prom, the Big Band prom.

But for me, the late-night summer slot will always be the place for Bach. The place of early music at the Proms is rather contested - some influential figures feel like there isn’t enough of it programmed to reflect this vibrant, thriving element of British music-making; others point out that what is a niche interest even among classical music fans is hardly going to fill a venue the size of the Royal Albert Hall.

And it is true - the RAH is not the easiest building in which to perform centuries-old works originally intended for the drawing room or the cathedral. Yet the musicians who do come to perform it seem to relish the challenge of adapting their sound and sonority to a hall that can hold thousands, and when it works, it can be the best the Proms have to offer.

Alina Ibragimova playing Bach at the 2015 Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

This year, in recognition of this fact, the season includes a series of late night Bach proms. Alina Ibragimova was up first, her rendition of the complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin split over two nights. She is an uncompromising interpreter of Bach - there is no vibrato or Romantic warmth to her playing, just the absolute precise layering of harmony and counterpoint. In her hands, you suddenly hear the impossible cleverness of Bach’s music in a way that lusher, less spare performances obscure.

I prefer to enjoy these late-night recitals as a prommer in the gallery, rather than as a reviewer in the stalls. You don’t need a good view of Ibragimova to feel completely surrounded by the presence of her music, and thanks to the quirky Royal Albert Hall acoustic, the sound travels cleanly all the way up to you, near the roof. The shadowy cloister-like feel of the gallery, where you share the floor with your fellow Bach obsessed oddballs and the occasional baffled tourist, feels far more appropriate a place to absorb this kind of music than the well-lit red-and-gold plushness of the hall down below.

I was also up there for the Academy of Ancient Music’s turn at the late-night Bach slot. The showstopper of the evening was clearly meant to be the famous Magnificat in D major, with its fanfares and jolly rhythms, yet it was the little-performed Lutheran Mass in G minor that really captured my heart, the dark colours and melancholy tones vibrating in the air. Even the most enjoyable evening at a late-night Bach Prom is a little bit sad, I find. At the start of the season in July, you can be joining the queue at 9.30pm in daylight, the sun yet to set, but by the end of August the gallery windows are thrown open to the night. Somewhere in between the Brandenburg concertos and the Goldberg Variations, summer came to an end.

András Schiff playing Bach's Goldberg Variations. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The real blockbuster hits of this year’s late-night Bach series are András Schiff’s Goldberg Variations and Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello Suites (the latter still forthcoming, on 5 September). For the former, I abandoned the gallery for the stalls - this was a feat of the pianist’s technique, musicianship and memory that I wanted to see. And it was worth it. For all the austerity of the stage, with the Fabbrini Steinway alone at its centre - there was a richness and tumult to the way the notes poured from Schiff’s hands. His tempo is more consistent than my own personal favourite Goldberg, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording, and so lacks the delicious hesitancy and melancholy that rubato brings.

The decisions he made about where to pause and where to run one variation into the next were intriguing, but above all it felt like music the audience were involved in. We breathed with him, followed him as he spiralled from one intricate pattern to the next, and when the aria’s main theme returned at the end, we sighed with astonishment. The hall was packed - a fitting riposte to anyone who thinks early music has no place at the Proms.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.