To commemorate the opening of the Beijing Olympics earlier in the day, Prom 29 commenced with the world premiere of Olympic Fire, an energetic work by Chinese composer Chen Yi, superbly played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.
Lasting a little over 10 minutes, Olympic Fire uses a full sized symphony orchestra with folk melodies from China woven into orchestral fabric. After an opening dominated by rhythmic figures for brass, xylophone and timpani, the work moved through a strongly melodic central section to reach a thrilling percussion-led conclusion. Timpanist Matt Perry, arms like an octopus, was notably impressive here. Afterwards, Chen Yi herself came forward and was greeted with warm applause; deservedly so, for this was one of the finest new works I’ve encountered for a long time.
Slatkin was joined by Russian pianist Olga Kern for a performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This was a splendid interpretation, rich in fantasy and seasoned with demonic energy, often with extremes of tempi. Kern’s quicksilver pianism was matched by a strongly incisive orchestral accompaniment, and the famous 18th variation was filled with romantic ardour.
Vaughan Williams’s folk-based Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus is one of his least performed works but one of his most personal (the composer requested that it be played at his funeral). Composed for strings and harp, some of the work’s nuances were lost in the unhelpful acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, but received a warm and sensitive performance.
The concert concluded with Vaughan Williams’ masterly Sixth Symphony. Slatkin’s interpretation missed a little of the work’s volcanic power but was strong on atmosphere, with a superb cor anglais solo in the Moderato and marvellously hushed playing from the orchestra in the mysterious Epilogue.
Sadly, much of the Epilogue was spoiled by unstifled coughing, the sound of plastic being unwrapped, and the regular clinking of someone’s metal wrist bangles, following on from the flash photography that had intruded earlier in the concert.