THE Proms are always special. They are unlike any other concert series, partly because of the venue with its unique acoustic and atmosphere, and partly because this truly is the world’s greatest music festival.
This year’s Proms, back with an audience (albeit not full capacity) after 2020’s weird empty hall, were always going to be a genuinely festive celebration, and this Prom was really exceptional.
Everything felt joyous – the Albert Hall staff, always so helpful, were warm and welcoming, checking tickets, inspecting our COVID vaccination cards or online records and directing people lost in the hall’s maze of corridors. There was a great buzz of anticipation followed by roars of excitement as the choir filed in and the conductor and soloist mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg walked on to the platform.
For his 60th appearance at the Proms, Gardiner presented a programme of two early Handel works and one of Bach’s most glorious cantatas. It was an ideal showcase for this sublime choir and musicians and its expressions of celebration and gratitude seemed to sum up the feelings of everyone in the hall.
The concert began with Handel’s Donna, che in ciel, a cantata composed in 1707-8 when the young composer was living in Italy, with commissions from wealthy patrons from church and state. Amazingly, this was the first time the work had been performed at the Proms.
Combining vivacious operatic arias and recitatives with elegant scoring for a string orchestra, it was composed to mark the anniversary of the survival of the city of Rome after a catastrophic earthquake that hit central Italy in early 1703, about five years before.
Written at much the same time (the two composers were born in the same year, 1685), Bach’s Christ lag in Todes Banden may have been composed for the composer’s audition for the post of organist at Muhlhausen. It is based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther and is Bach’s earliest church cantata. It blends great solemnity, appropriate to the season, with excited choruses and moments when the music – and the conductor – positively dance. For such a young man’s creation, this cantata has moments of real profundity.
The final work of the evening was Handel’s Dixit Dominus, one of those great Handel compositions that you know and yet which strike you as new every time you hear them. It is almost impossible (but tempting!) to imagine how extraordinary it must have been for the first audience. Composed during his years in Italy, Dixit Dominus was one of Handel’s earliest choral works and was a glorious announcement to the world of his genius, with its thrilling changes of mood and pace, and delightful and varied solos that showcased several individual members of the Monteverdi Choir.
The applause at the end was huge and heartfelt – Gardiner was brought back again and again, eventually playing two encores, and only finally “escaping” by firmly taking the hand of his experienced and hugely talented leader Kati Debretzeni and leading her off stage.
The Prom was recorded and will be broadcast on Sunday 5th September at 7pm on BBC4.