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11 August 2015

Proms 2015: A snapshot of 1945 from Britten, Korngold and Prokofiev

120 years since the first Prom concert, we travel back to a troubled year of musical innovation.

By Caroline Crampton

Anniversaries are always present in the way we listen to music. Round numbers, whether measuring the time since a composer was born or died or since a work first came into being, seem to give us a way of organising our listening, a way of breaking away from the standard fare.

In this vein, this year’s Proms are giving us Nielsen and Sibelius at 150 (although as Peter Phillips has pointed out, what about Arvo Pärt at 80?). There is, however, another anniversary that comes with fewer musical works, but is no less evocative for that.

The evening this year that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra brought a programme of Korngold, Britten and Prokofiev to the Royal Albert Hall marked 120 years to the night of the very first Prom concert, held at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, just off Regent Street. Sir Henry Wood was on the podium for that first night in 1895, and (as I’ve written before) right from the outset the aim was to create a more accessible, informal atmosphere in which to enjoy music, and a space for new musicians and composers to air their talents.

Nicola Benedetti in action. BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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Much has changed since then – not least the size and scope of the Proms season – but some things have also stayed the same. A busy arena full of promenaders turned out for the occasion, and the bronze bust of Wood looked down on them approvingly from his spot just below the organ.

The music we heard, though, came from a different point in time. By accident or design, all three pieces (Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Korngold’s violin concerto, Prokofiev’s fifth symphony) were all composed in the troubled year of 1944-45. Knowing this, I found myself groping for parallels and connections between them, although there are few. There is little similarity between the lush romanticism of Korngold’s concerto, say, and the sheer force of Prokofiev’s triumphant, blazing symphony.

Kirill Karabits on the podium. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The BSO gave good accounts of both, nonetheless, although soloist Nicola Benedetti struggled a little at times with the Royal Albert Hall acoustic – at certain moments, her sound disappeared into that of the orchestra as a whole. Still, she is a superb performer – the way her lines bloom and grow beyond the virtuosity and technique she has is always a treat.

The highlight of the programme, though, came at the very start. Conductor Kirill Karabits managed to find something new in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (despite their familiarity from all the Britten centenary programming in 2013). The woodwind, in particular, distinguished themselves in the nocturnal “Moonlight” interlude, and there were plenty of salty, violent waves in the Storm.

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