It seems that the BBC Proms declare audience figures have hit a new peak at the end of every season. The announcement has become such an annual fixture that a touch of cynicism might seem in order, but not this year. The Royal Albert Hall has been packed to the rafters night after night – 52 of the 74 evening concerts sold out and an average attendance of 94 per cent, an extraordinary figure for a hall of this size.
In effect, the Proms have set themselves an Olympic-sized record to break a year early, so it is good to hear there are ambitious plans for the 2012 season. These include a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and conductor Daniel Barenboim to climax with the Ninth Symphony on the Olympics’ opening night.
At least one member of the audience on Saturday was already looking ahead. Among the traditional Last Night of the Proms flags was a large, five-ringed Olympic flag waving proudly in the middle of the arena. There were also a few Chinese flags for the first time, heralding the appearance of Lang Lang, who played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 with a joie de vivre that could only come from a pianist who positively enjoys the opportunity it affords to show off. Soprano Susan Bullock confidently predicted the end of the world in the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and then returned in the most ludicrous costume yet as a comic-book Britannia. Conductor Edward Gardner scored well on two counts: firstly, for the high-class playing he drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra; and secondly, for a short speech.
Nevertheless, to see why the BBC Proms are such a success, the best place to look was not the Last Night with its high jinks, enjoyable though they mostly were, but the night before. On Friday, John Eliot Gardiner brought his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique to give a concert performance of Weber’s opera Der Freischütz in the rarely heard version made by another great composer, Berlioz. This was a revelation – stunning instrumental sounds, a good cast of light-voiced singers of the kind both Weber and Berlioz probably expected, and sizzling with theatrical flair. I name it my personal Prom of the year.