Proms 2011: Last Night

Over 8 weeks of classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall come to a close with the traditional Last Night concert. Nick Shave reports from a very British evening of music and balloons

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I feel like I’m on a crash course to find out what it means to be British – and it rocks!

I’m at Lords for the one-day test, England v India; England have won the toss and opted to field; the champagne corks are popping (Pimm’s o’clock starts here at a civilised 11am). I only tell you this because my Great British experience was initiated last night by the Last Night of the Proms – a celebration of flags, silly costumes and balloons – and music, of course.

The evening began with a flourish of fanfares in Peter Maxwell Davies’s piece for choir and orchestra, Musica Benevelons. It cleverly combined sophisticated writing (harmonically unstable jazz-infused passages for the BBC Symphony Orchestra) with party atmosphere (prommers sang along with the BBC Symphony Chorus), winding up with an almighty blaze of brass. ‘Thank goodness,’ sighed Maxwell Davies’s companion, to my right, after the piece had finished. ‘I can relax now.’

Forever one to rise flamboyantly to the occasion, Lang Lang is perhaps the ideal virtuoso to play to the Last Night's ebullient crowds – and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 a good vehicle for the occasion. He produced some spectacular and sensitive playing, gentle pianissimo passages fluttering up and down the keyboard. Rubatos were stretched past breaking point (on the podium, Ed Gardner did well to respond) and there were times when the performance seemed more about show than substance, but there’s no faulting Lang Lang’s technique.

In between came a rousing rendition of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin (at this point, the spectator to my left fell asleep – how was that possible?) and Susan Bullock filled the shoes of Brünhilde, singing a deeply moving rendition of the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämerung. That was the highlight for me. She would return after the break for showtunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein and the traditional Rule, Britannia!…

I would go on, but it looks like rain. Time for tea. Toodle-pip!

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is Contributing Editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls