If Sir Henry Wood is known as the great founder of the Proms, his successor Sir Malcom Sargent is the conductor whose stewardship ensured that it continued to flourish after Wood’s death in 1944, taking the title of chief conductor of the Proms very shortly after being named one of three co-conductors and holding it impressively until 1966. Sargent’s flair, modernism and sense of occasion were in touch with the post-war era and perhaps his most obvious mark on the Proms is the joyous Last Night. No musician since has been such a dominant force at the festival, but perhaps the closest is Sir Andrew Davis, a regular and beloved figure at the Proms. It seemed fitting for Davis to conduct his old band, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in this tribute to Sargent, a recreation of the late conductor’s 500th prom in 1966, especially given that Davis has strong credentials in the English music that comprised the majority of the programme.

Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

We started with a marginally awkward National Anthem, with the audience pulled to its feet by Davis’ enthusiasm. The vague vocal contribution that I picked up from my part of the hall hinted at a degree of bafflement from an audience that was not perhaps entirely used to declarations to the Queen in a non-Last Night context. Moving from the palace to the carnival, the opening of Berlioz’ Le carnaval romain was fleet, and with a broad and rounded brass sound all that was needed was a little more focus from the strings and a sense of revelry in the body of the work to make it a great interpretation, though the finale had enough to spirit to end the piece well. With a familiar “heave-ho”, a piano was brought on stage and Beatrice Rana was ushered on for Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It was interesting to see the extremely careful balance Davis brought to the orchestra: in a venue like the Royal Albert Hall, sound is always variable and to be able to meld the orchestra and piano together so that both are audible, even in quieter moments, is quite an achievement. Rana’s interpretation was smooth and ungrainy; moments in the first movement could have done with greater definition, but there was a sense of quiet direction to the playing which gave the piece an impetus which regrettably seemed to fizzle out somewhat in a rather empty second movement. A little more texture – and energy – would have been welcome. Some lovely oboe playing stood out among all the excellent woodwind contributions.

For the long second half – audiences had better staying power in those days – we opened with Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, a work which can be tedious but which has a strong following among devoted prommers. Davis drew the right level of bombast and sweep from the orchestra, with mellow strings nicely coloured and the brass exuberantly assertive. The Façade Suite No. 1 along with the “Popular Song” from Suite No. 2 was characterfully done, with an enjoyable, spritely “Polka” and a fine showing throughout from the percussion. Best from this section was the ballet suite from The Perfect Fool by Holst, which opens his one act opera and is likely to be the only part of the work one is ever likely to hear more than once. Hearing it, one realises just how distinctive Holst’s writing is. It’s a treasure of a piece, with gorgeous music for the harp, stirring brass writing and a variety to its colour that captivates the ear. It was lovingly played, with tight tempi driving it on. A rendition of Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring struggled to make an impression, and then, after a speech from Davis in tribute to Sargent, straight into The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which Sargent premiered for Britten in 1946. The brass seemed a touch less on form here than previously in the evening, but it was a fairly lively and brisk account of the piece with decent solos. The whole evening was a nice idea, but in practice it was an unrelenting programme that fatigued the ear.

***11