Note: This is a review of the concert via the BBC iplayer. BBC Engineers might do something about the fact that Part 1 breaks off with the opening bars of "A Weekend in the Country" which concludes in the Interval Feature.
Anniversaries have been a staple of Proms programming for some years so it was perhaps inevitable that Roger Wright's eye should alight on Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday year as a fitting moment to devote a whole Prom to his work. Such an enterprise however immediately presents a number of difficulties. Firstly, Sondheim's numbers are specifically not written to be performed out of context, and they almost inevitably lose something when so performed. Secondly, the danger of letting a symphony orchestra loose on musical theatre is that it will fail to grasp the idiom. This Prom just about got away on the first count, but was largely floored by the second.
The performance actually started remarkably well. The “Instructions to the Audience” from The Frogs are a bit cliched, but Simon Russell Beale is such a masterful deliverer of any line that he made me laugh heartily. Unfortunately it was largely downhill all the way from then on. The main reason for this was the partnership of David Charles Abell and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Having read Abell's biography in the on-line programme (one of the excellent things the Proms website provides – one rather wishes Radio 3 would do this year round for concerts) I find it difficult to work out why he'd been selected for the honour. He doesn't appear ever to have conducted a full-length Sondheim show – although he has one or two coming up. This inexperience shows. Sondheim's sound world is wistful, edgy, biting – you cannot simply have an orchestra luxuriating in its various solos. Abell's tempi where almost universally too slow (a common failing in this kind of performance – compare Simon Rattle's recording of Bernstein's Wonderful Town with the recent Broadway revival recording), and the violins in particular seemed to imagine they were performing lush Mantovani arrangements rather than bittersweet Sondheim. At times Abell was simply completely out of his depth, the unbelievable pause as he tried to get from Henrik's sermon-like solo in “A Weekend in the Country” back into the patter counterpoint being an especially glaring example of a gear change gone wrong. The performance of the starry line-up of soloists against this unhelpful accompaniment was variable. The standout, by a country mile, in the first half was Dame Judi Dench performing “Send in the Clowns”, here Abell and the orchestra wisely followed Dame Judi wherever she wished to go even seeming to realise that it was possible to play quietly. At the other end of the spectrum were two lousy performances from Julian Ovenden in Too Many Mornings and Agony. Ovenden fell down on two counts. First, despite so far as I can judge from his bio being British by birth he insisted (in contrast to just about everybody else involved) on putting on an American accent which just grated badly. Secondly, he achieved the remarkable feat of making “Agony” the fairy tale duet for the two love-sick princes hopelessly unfunny.
The second half was much the same, success tending to depend on the quality of the soloists and their knowledge of the show from which the extract came. Maria Friedman and Bryn Terfel were superb as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett, with some fine cameos from the Proms Sondheim Ensemble and the Royal Albert Hall organ played by Roderick Elms. Equally so were Simon Russell Beale and Daniel Evans leading off Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. Indeed Russell Beale's performance convinces me that someone should be rushing to cast him as the hapless President in David Mamet's brilliant satire November which I know all the best London producing houses are desperate to put on. But I digress, to get back to the Sondheim Prom where other numbers continued to fall flat. It was a nice idea to get singers supported by the BBC Performing Arts fund to sing the heartbreaking “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along. It would have been even nicer if one had felt they really understood the point of the song, unfortunately their delivery tended to be rather more Lloyd Webber than Sondheim.
Sondheim in concert can be an overpowering experience. Two compact discs of notable performances – the famous 1985 Broadway concert performances of Follies, and the Sondheim Tribute at Carnegie Hall expand the emotional weight of the scores through the larger orchestra. Abell's problem is that he doesn't properly understand the Sondheim idiom. However, this is absolutely not to say that the Proms should turn its back on musical theatre. Instead I have two solutions for them. First, hire Paul Gemignani to conduct. Second, why not do a full score rather than bleeding chunks, for which I suggest Follies (with a cast as close to that in the recent benefit performance at the London Palladium as you can get). Now that would be giving true insight into his genius.