This was never going to be an ordinary year for the BBC Proms. With the Olympics and Paralympics falling right in the middle of the usual Proms season, the prospect was for a city gridlocked with traffic and audiences who had other priorities on their minds. It must have come as a relief to the organisers that their fears never materialised.
What we had in 2012 was a silver medal-winning Proms. Audiences at 93 per cent of capacity for the main evening concerts at the Royal Albert Hall did not equal the all-time record set last year, but the figure is still a remarkable achievement. Artistically, it was a season of highs and lows. Bringing over Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies to mark the opening of the Olympics was just the kind of grand and inclusive statement the Proms does so well, only for the middle of the season to fall back with more than its fair share of lacklustre concerts and a particularly feeble run of new works.
Happily, though, the ending came on a high. A final week that included visits from the great European orchestras of Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna could hardly go wrong. In the penultimate pair of Proms the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has rarely sounded better. At the age of 83, Bernard Haitink is one of the most practical conductors in the business and it must be a joy to play under a musician who signals what he wants so calmly and clearly.
The Viennese players certainly gave him their best. Their two classical works – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 with Murray Perahia and Haydn’s Symphony No.104 – were a fraction too careful to take wing, but in the late romantic grandeur of Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 and Strauss’s Eine Alpensymphonie the aural splendour of the performances held sway. No other orchestra has a string section that is at once so rich and so clear, or horns with that distinctive Viennese quality. Haitink’s wisdom was simply to let them play at their best.
As always, the Last Night of the Proms was a mixture of new ideas and dog-eared tradition. Among the innovations was the first 3D relay of the concert on television and to cinemas throughout the UK. The traditional audience participation was co-ordinated with delightful, schoolmasterly forbearance by master of ceremonies Jirí Belohlávek, who was bidding the Last Night of the Proms farewell, as this was his final concert as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The two headline soloists were Nicola Benedetti, giving a lyrical performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who gamely ventured “Rule, Britannia!” in English, wearing a tracksuit top with the Union flag and a T-shirt underneath bearing the cross of Malta. For the encore he was joined on stage by eight Olympic medal winners from Team GB, who stood at the front wondering whether to sing along or not – a last reminder that this was the BBC Proms’ Olympic year.