BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

So it has happened. After 118 years a woman conductor has stepped up to take charge of the Last Night of the Proms for the first time. It was impossible to miss the significance of the event: the welcoming cheer was huge and somebody had thoughtfully fixed to the conductor’s rostrum a big, pink balloon proclaiming “It’s a girl!”

That Marin Alsop would carry off the assignment with such panache could have been confidently predicted from the outset. “I’m shocked that it can be 2013 and there are still firsts for women,” she said in her closing speech. But at last the taboo has been broken and Alsop’s joie de vivre guaranteed a Last Night that would be celebratory in high style.

All the traditional favourites were there, even if “Rule, Britannia!” was shorn of its companion sea shanties. The patriotic flags waved as ever, this year with the four flags of Brazil, Russia, China and India prominent in the arena – surely a BRICs first at the Last Night?

Always adapting and growing, the BBC Proms are themselves flag-bearers for the future of classical music. More concerts were broadcast on television channels this year than in any previous season and it was especially gratifying to see cameras filming the chamber music Proms at Cadogan Hall for the BBC website. Online access to the Proms is growing exponentially. In years to come we will surely be talking about a world audience, if we are not already.

Overall, this Proms season was of a decent standard, distinguished by some truly unforgettable highlights. Prime among those was the first complete performance of Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen in a single Proms season with Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin keeping up a standard over the four nights that was quite exceptional. New music was also unusually strong, with full-scale works from composers as diverse as Thomas Adès, Naresh Sohal, Helmut Lachenmann and Nishat Khan.

By contrast, the line-up of international orchestras was somewhat thinner. On Thursday, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi honoured its titular composer in his bicentenary year with a first half of Verdi arias sung by tenor Joseph Calleja, sounding less than his usual wholehearted self. Xian Zhang conducted a heartfelt, but sometimes slack performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” Symphony.

On Friday, Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra brought star quality to the penultimate night. It is impossible to go wrong with the Viennese orchestra’s glorious playing in Bruckner, but Maazel turned the Symphony No.8 into severe blocks of sound, when some human warmth would have been nice. An imaginative first half brought solo Bach organ works, played by Klaus Sonnleitner, organist at the monastery of St Florian in Austria, where Bruckner also served and is buried.

The Last Night itself was light-hearted and commendably fast-moving, compared with some. Anna Clyne’s fizzy Masquerade, a BBC commission, made the perfect Last Night premiere. The star singer was American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who looked a million dollars and sounded it, too, especially in “Over the Rainbow” (she was born in Kansas, the land of The Wizard of Oz). Violinist Nigel Kennedy kept toes tapping with his Czárdás. And over all presided Alsop, at once a live-wire conductor and authoritative master of ceremonies. What firsts will the BBC Proms have in store for 2014?

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