The first night of BBC Proms 2020 at the Royal Albert Hall
The first night of BBC Proms 2020 at the Royal Albert Hall © Chris Christodoulou/BBC

On May 10 1941 the Queen's Hall, home of the Promenade Concerts, was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the London Blitz. Undeterred, the Proms opened as scheduled six weeks later with a new home at the Royal Albert Hall, where they have remained ever since.

No such luck in 2020. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic the BBC Proms followed most other music festivals and cancelled its planned season. To keep a presence going, the BBC has offered archive recordings on television and radio and — for just the final two weeks — live concerts. These are mostly in the Royal Albert Hall, but with no audience present.

This might all seem low-profile, but a suspiciously well-timed spat over the Last Night has put the Proms back in the public eye. Should “Rule, Britannia!” stay or go? Campaigners claim it glorifies the oppression of empire, while traditionalists deny the words are racist. Having tested the waters, the BBC has prevaricated — no singing this year, but a return to tradition in 2021.

Thanks to coronavirus restrictions the two-week live schedule has been cut down to size in other ways, too — mostly smaller works, with UK-based soloists and orchestras. At best, though, the ambition can remain the same. 

The opening night, with Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was the expected mix. A premiere is the rule to start and Hannah Kendall's Tuxedo: Vasco 'de' Gama, whose inspiration is a work by the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, fitted in an array of unusual sounds within its dutiful five minutes. Copland's Quiet City, accompanied by visuals of deserted city centres, was a timely choice. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 roused only moderate fire to mark the composer's 250th anniversary. The most memorable item came from the BBC Singers, who brought a hushed concentration to Eric Whitacre's Sleep, a brief interlude of balm. 

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida
Pianist Mitsuko Uchida plays Kurtág's ' . . . quasi una fantasia . . .’ © Chris Christodoulou/BBC

The most interesting of the weekend's Proms was Sunday's. Seeking to make the best of social distancing, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra went for spatial effects. There were a couple of short Gabrieli numbers with the brass echoing from distant boxes, as they might have done in St Mark's, Venice. Kurtág's . . . quasi una fantasia . . ., a sort of mini piano concerto, engaged pianist Mitsuko Uchida in an intense dialogue with instrumental groups around the hall.

For the rest, there was English music, a renewed enthusiasm of Rattle's since he returned to the UK from Berlin. Elgar was treated to a super-romantic performance of his Introduction and Allegro for strings. Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5 opened up vistas of eternal tranquility.

In between came the highlight of the evening, a new work from Thomas Adès. Dawn only lasts seven minutes and is uncharacteristically spare, but as day breaks, Adès's music grows in warmth, from simple scales like Arvo Pärt to a burst of sunshine reminiscent of Ravel. Many thanks to Rattle and the LSO for bringing it forwards, a ray of optimism in a largely dark Proms season.

★★★☆☆

BBC Proms are on BBC Two, BBC Four and BBC iPlayer

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