BBC Proms reviews

Prom 1 review – the BBC’s summer music festival launched with (some) Nordic flair

14 July 2023


Dalia Stasevska conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra for music by Edvard Grieg, Bohdana Frolyak, Benjamin Britten, and her fellow Finn, Jean Sibelius.

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BBCSO & Dalia Stasevska at The First Night of the 2023 Proms (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

As remarked elsewhere, this year’s Proms season has a touch of ‘didn’t quite make it last year’ about it, with the opening night setting the tone. None of the pieces played were disappointments, but, for the first Prom of the season, the bill of fare felt strangely fractured – as though the Nordic theme encapsulated by Grieg (Piano Concerto) and Sibelius (Finlandia and Snöfrid) suddenly ran out of steam, and needed some random vehicles as a kind of musical rail replacement service. Inserting a world première (Let There Be Light) by Ukrainian composer Bohdana Frolyak was appositely supportive of that nation’s troubled situation, but what Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was doing there is anyone’s guess. It’s a pretty enough work, bringing a touch of nostalgia to those of us who remember it from our school music lessons, but it’s hardly a stunning curtain-raiser.

It’s difficult to think of a country other than Finland, whose character (and, indeed, the birth of the nation itself) is so encapsulated by music; in particular, that of Jean Sibelius. Finlandia is the country’s unofficial National Anthem, and the BBCSO under Stasevska gave the piece a rousing performance, from its opening portentous drum ‘n’ brass to its full-throated triumphant close. Swooping strings, punchy trumpets, an iron control of dynamic, and the most delicate and co-ordinated initial entry from the BBC Singers/Symphony chorus were the hallmarks of this emotionally charged account that left this non-Finn moist eyed.

Further illustrating the glories of Stasevska’s homeland was Sibelius’ rarely performed Snöfrid, a short peep into a Nordic saga via a section of a lengthy Swedish poem by Viktor Rydberg in which the eponymous nymph, in a spoken part, urges a warrior to return to battle. The piece is full of Sibelius’ brilliant scene-painting: the opening tempest (twirling woodwinds); the temptations of joining the Wild Hunt (a deal of intense brass work); the siren song of retirement to a cottage in the woods (gentle, rocking strings). Lesley Manville, suitably ‘silver robed’ delivered the narration – in a new English translation by Edward Kemp – in the beautifully enunciated, clipped tones that one might expect from a supernatural being. The orchestra brought out all of the composer’s shadings, and the chorus delivered their homophonic hymnody with co-ordinated élan (the little staccato interjections form the sopranos and altos were particularly effective), such that the final bars were suffused with the kind of smiling radiance that is one of Sibelius’ specialities.

“…for the first Prom of the season, the bill of fare felt strangely fractured…”

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Lesley Manville & Dalia Stasevska (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Grieg’s only piano concerto is a concert evergreen, and it’s difficult to see how anyone could bring anything new to it. Stasevska, the orchestra and soloist Paul Lewis opted for what might be termed a controlled performance – perhaps drawing on Grieg’s reputation as a miniaturist. For sure, there was emotion: all the shadings of dynamic and tempo were observed to the letter; Lewis’ playing was impeccable (the first movement cadenza delivered with consummate skill). But there was about the whole performance a whiff of academia, of simply following Grieg’s instructions. One imagines an account by a Star Trek Vulcan ensemble might sound like this: perfect to the second, the decibel and the hertz, but vaguely supressed.

Frolyak’s short work, the first of this year’s BBC commissions packs a great deal of intensity into its five minutes. Opening with shimmering strings, and closing on the soughing of breath across noteless flutes, Let There Be Light is effectively one big dynamic rise and fall. Its sound world is one of French Impressionism – there’s a feeling of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe about it, perhaps mingled with the Modernism of Messiaen. All this makes for a transcendent listening experience full of enchanting harp whooshes, ominous brass chords, diaphanous string passages and the ever-present fairy twinkling of a mark tree, all brought intelligently to life by the BBCSO.

Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide… based on the Rondeau from Purcell’s theatre music to Abdelazer illustrates each section, then each instrument of the orchestra in a set of ingenious variations on the theme, finishing off with a skilfully constructed fugue. Stasevska and the orchestra took up Britten’s challenge with relish to bring out all of the character of each variation from lilting cellos and brisk violins, through liquid clarinets and the ‘straight man, funny man’ bassoon duet, to galloping trumpets and sombre horns. The final fugue was taken at a breakneck speed, but without a note out of place. It seemed a pity, perhaps, that the lighting engineers hadn’t been able to add a little more pzazz to the performance by deploying appropriate spotlights.

• Prom 1 can be audio streamed  from BBC Sounds and watched on BBC iPlayer.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

 


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