Last Nights of the Proms

It's been said that the Great Britain celebrated at the last night of the Proms is a country that no longer exists; that the half-concert, half-Pythonesque ritual is a monocultural fantasy, jingoistic and egregiously sentimental. Saturday's instalment starred a Ukranian violist and American soprano led by a Czech conductor. Behind me were cramped Finnish, Polish and American radio presenters, while before and above me the sea of red, white and blue flooding the hall was comprised of flags representing the UK but also the US, Japan, Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Norway, Denmark and Russia.

Britannia herself was the American Renée Fleming, upholstered in a Vivienne Westwood dress whose soaring breast plates would drown a lesser voice. She had concluded the first half of the evening with some nuanced Strauss songs, but her best performances came in the second half, both in the dazzling vocal fireworks with which she adorned Arne's patriotic ode and also in two arias from Smetana (Dobrá) and Dvorak (Song to the Moon). Fleming's intensity and precision of feeling was a masterclass in itself, and also an inspiration for Jiri Belohlávek and his orchestra, who at last forgot how tired they all were.

Indeed, if anything marred the evening it was the lacklustre playing of an admittedly overworked orchestra, who singularly failed to meet on equal terms Fleming's Strauss or Rysanov's stirring adaptation of Tchaikovsky's Roccoco Variations. This was a particular shame in a programme that was musically more thoughtful than many. Similarly, in the premiere of Jonathan Dove's declamatory and upbeat Whitman setting, Song of Joys – which, in the best tradition of high-spirited English choral music left me feeling slightly queasy – and Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens, Belohlávek revealed his limits as a choral conductor.

The same could not be said of the previous night, in which John Eliot Gardiner held a packed auditorium spellbound for the diverse aural entertainments that make up Monteverdi's 400-year-old Vespers. Gardiner has his detractors but his choir and orchestra's devotion to his often idiosyncratic vision is an inspiration in itself. If ever there was a work, too, in which the depths of expression combine seamlessly with pomp and circumstance, and which plays to the acoustic strengths of the Royal Albert Hall, it is this – a Prom to remember.

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