It is the second year running that Jiří Bělohlávek, as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, has been given the First Night honour. Although known – and occasionally criticised – for his modest approach, Bělohlávek extracted a clear and assured performance out of each of the evening’s three pieces. William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture served as the appetiser, so to speak, of the all-English first half.
This six-minute morsel, inspired by an eighteenth-century etching of the same name by Thomas Rowlandson, had its London premiere at the first Proms season in 1927 and is often described as the ‘big-break’ of Walton’s career. The bustle of jagged, jazz-based rhythms and agitated shrieks of brass successfully distilled the sense of First Night excitement and cleared the air for the intensity of what followed.
The music of Elgar has always been central to the Proms. The festival annually honours both his place in the British canon and, of course, the tradition of performing his Pomp and Circumstance march, which has become synonymous with the bombast and exuberance of the Last Night. This year, however, the 150th anniversary of his birth, Elgar, like Bělohlávek, gets to top and tail the whole festival, and we begin on a rather different note with his Cello Concerto in E minor.
There has been much chatter about the outdated conservatism of Elgar’s music (and indeed political viewpoint), but there can be no doubt that this piece, written in the wake of the First World War, with greater focus than other works, conveys a sense of isolation and insecurity that has potent contemporary relevance. For many people it is the legendary Jacqueline du Pré recording to which all else compares, but the British cellist Paul Watkin made the piece his own, giving full expression to the tortured cello line, nudged along by the sparing – almost sparse – orchestration.
This year the First Night programme broke with convention to end with Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D minor, replacing the concert that was cancelled last September because of a fire. The BBCSO gave a meticulous interpretation of this epic work, and though occasionally muted by the immense forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Philharmonia Chorus, all four soloists – Patricia Bardon, Paul Groves, Maria Haan and René Pape – made an impressive contribution. The performance will inevitably invite comparison with a second airing under Mariss Jansons’ baton later on in the season, but for Bělohlávek’s part, it was a thrilling start to the Proms.