Biggest night yet at the BBC Proms

Biggest night yet at the BBC Proms


norman lebrecht

August 23, 2019

It is very easy to tell when the Royal Albert Hall is full for a concert and when it is totally rammed. In a normal sold-out house, the air-conditioning works and breathing is possible. Last night was all sweat, tears and asphyxiation. At least for the first half.

The City of Birmingham Symphony brought down a programme it had played back home the night before, reportedly to an ecstatic reception. The opening piece was Lamia by a local composer, Dorothy Howell (1898-1982). Written in 1918, it sounded more Vaughan Williams than Vaughan Williams, except when it sounded like Holst. Howell was a Henry Wood protégée whose composing urge petered out in mid-life. She devoted her later years to looking after Elgar’s grave.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was the soloist in Elgar’s cello concerto and expectations were impossibly high. The royal wedding cellist has an easy stage personality and a huge fandom. His approach to Elgar’s post-War valediction was lyrical but without much lament. The long lines ebbed and flowed but I missed the numinous dimension that older cellists brought, and still bring, to this death-accepting masterpiece. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla introduced two or three fractional pauses into her shaping of the piece, as if she and Sheku were still searching for the right Elgarian expression.

The Sheku fans who left at the interval – many of them from the standing-room bear-pit – missed a playful eight-minute memento of the late Oliver Knussen and a riveting account of the little-known third symphony by centenarian composer Mieczysław Weinberg, a Mirga favourite. Weinberg withdrew the symphony from rehearsal in 1949, fearing Stalin’s wrath. It features heavy episodes of machine-gun fire and an ear-worm concluding theme that seemed to proclaim that Russia will survive, come what may. A cheeky piccolo solo at the end of the second movement reminded us how Shostakovich used the whistle in his eighth symphony to deflate Soviet pomposities.

Mirga conducted with massive conviction and the orchestra gave it all they’ve got – which is plenty – and then some. This was world class performance, the kind of urgent communication we miss in London most of the year. Mirga, not one for understatement, told the audience they should come to Birmingham in its centenary year to hear more.



  • Una says:

    The air conditioning only works at the expensive stalls level of the RAH,not the best for sound, and when the outside temperature is beneath 25C.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    For what my limited expertise is worth I totally agree. the Elgar was underwhelming, almost lacking involvement, and even the expectant audience did not seem ecstatic. I hope Sheku is not already looking at the Elgar as routine concert filler. The Weinberg on the other hand was a superb piece magnificently played. A composer who might not have survived had Stalin not died in 1953 (on the same day as Prokofiev). As it is he lived another 40 years. Lots more to explore.

  • R. Brite says:

    Two big rows of Sheku groupies in the midchoir on the west side left at the interval.Their loss.

  • Michel says:

    We are in love with Shaku !

  • Ellingtonia says:

    I have already taken up the invitation and will be travelling to Birmingham in January to hear Mirga conduct Mahler 8 following on from my visit to hear her do Mahler 2.

  • christopher storey says:

    I fear for young musicians who are over-exposed at too early a stage in their careers. I have a nasty feeling this is happening to Kanneh- Mason . He is undoubtedly a very talented cellist ( although not perhaps as talented as his pianist sister ) but he needs time to learn his trade,and of course the repertoire , and this is not being given. The BBC has much to answer for in all this . There are too many young stars who burn out because of this

    • Adrienne says:

      Entirely predictable. It is happening because guilt-driven middle class whites, and the BBC in particular, are desperate to find black people to fill the holes that they have decided must exist.

      It is not good for music and probably not good for Mr Kanneh-Mason in the long run either.

      I’ve commented on this before. As a black person I find it intensely patronising. However, I’m pleased that some people are trying to introduce a little reality by pointing out his relative inexperience.

      • Martain Smith says:

        I agree with your very wise analysis. Alas – a white person wouldn’t be allowed to say the same!

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Some compositions require a level of maturity that is extremely rare even among the most supremely gifted 20 year old musicians. I feel that way about late piano sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert. Could the same be the case with the Elgar concerto?

  • CheekyFan says:

    The musical review is fine, but the burning question for those who missed this concert – what were Mirga and Sheku wearing?!

  • Guest says:

    I can’t wait to see audiences filled with African-Americans when he performs!

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Why would a British venue be filled with “African-Americans”. Your comment is just bizarre.
      In any case, why can’t white, black, brown (and any other race) all enjoy his playing equally?

      Much of his attraction to British audiences is that he is a young man from a non-musical and fairly working class non-Metropolitan British family who is performing. We all hope he develops into a major talent.

      • Anon says:

        He’s not working class lol!
        He’s middle class and Both his parents are professionals.
        Please don’t assume anything coz of his race..
        Middle class bp exist…and they all don’t live in London.

  • Kun says:

    I like sheku, but du pre or tortelier he is not. I also do not think he would develop into one, especially with his current performative trajectory. I do hope he does a sabbatical, rework his entire technique and musicianship.

    • Symphony musician says:

      Hello Kun.
      I disagree. On one hand he is still only 20, and he’s not the finished article (although he sounds fantastic for 20). On the other hand I’ve rarely seen a soloist so comfortable on stage, so connected to the audience, and so un-selfconsciously intent on making music. Audiences love him, and rightly so. The stage is his natural environment and I think he has all the musical intelligence he needs to develop through performance.