The BBC Proms isn’t all about music that’s complex, heart-searching or intellect-challenging: there’s room for some guilty pleasures as well. Actually, you can drop the word “guilty”: we all need a bit of escapism just now, and the Proms provided it with their “Viennese Night”, inviting us to sway to the lilt of Strauss waltzes or relax with sentimental favourites and the gentle, good-humoured mockery of Lehár, Kálmán, Heuberger and Oscar Straus (who dropped his third “s” to distance himself from the more famous Johanns and Josef).

Robert Murray
© Chris Christodoulou

Being in Covid-19 times, the Royal Albert Hall was emptied of its audience and Bramwell Tovey took charge of a BBC Concert Orchestra in reduced format: some 30 musicians playing reduced arrangements which evoked the tradition of a Palm Court Orchestra. Unsurprisingly, there was a certain loss of wide romantic sweep compared to a full symphonic configuration, but one has to be impressed by the orchestra’s togetherness when playing in a huge hall with all the musicians so far from each other. Tovey cut a dapper figure on the podium, beaming indulgently at his players. Much of the time, the result was more elegance than ebullience, which is not necessarily a bad thing in this repertoire, but earlier numbers like the overture to The Merry Widow fell a fraction flat. Musicians over the years have told us how special is the atmosphere of playing at the Proms because of how close they are to the audience: perhaps it took a while for the performers to get used to their absence. Dead silence followed the first (purely orchestral) number: once the singers came on, the orchestra players provided the applause and the atmosphere warmed up noticeably.

Bramwell Tovey and the BBC Concert Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou

The star of the evening was tenor Robert Murray, who really started getting into things in “Grüss mir mein Wien” from Kálmán’s Countess Maritza, a heartfelt love letter to Vienna from an Austrian nobleman in exile. Murray had it all – a clear voice suffused with brightness, great diction, solid highs, pitching in at maximum expressivity with the most beautiful lilt. Good operetta needs no-holds-barred seduction of the audience and that’s exactly what Murray delivered.

Sophie Bevan was less convincing. She has a beautiful voice with peaches-and-cream timbre, the intonation was good, the phrasing well attuned to the operetta style. In the duet from Richard Heuberger’s Der Opernball, her phrasing and interaction with Murray were ravishing. But throughout, there were real problems of intelligibility, with consonants vanishing. I was missing half the words or more, and in the absence of surtitles, that meant that in spite of much of the text being in English translation, it was difficult to discern clear engagement with the meaning – Murray, in contrast, remained a model of clarity.

Sophie Bevan
© Chris Christodoulou

The waltzes – the famous one in the Fledermaus overture and Lehár’s Gold and Silver Waltz, were carried off with panache. Leader Nathaniel Anderson-Frank carried off the violin solos from Lehár’s operetta Paganini with aplomb.

In the end, we were able to imagine ourselves dressed to the nines in a fin de siècle ballroom. Of course, this requires a major imaginative leap as regards both my elegance and dancing ability, but with this music, who’s counting?

This concert was reviewed from the video live stream