Opera and Classical Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms 2020

17 July 2020


The BBC Proms are back. Barry Creasy tells us they’re anything but ordinary this year.

BBC PromsFriday evening’s First Night of the Proms was a far cry from the usual. There was no sense of an audience welcoming a return to the Royal Albert Hall after a ten-month absence; no suppressed excitement and no glitterati. The coronavirus pandemic, sadly, has put paid to all of that, and regular live concert attenders, tuned in to BBC Radio 3, had to make their own whoopee. Nevertheless, the BBC has risen to the occasion, and assembled a wonderful programme of carefully picked archive performances for broadcast (indeed, a programme of such excellent and star-studded performances which budgetary constraints would never permit for a single live season).

As curtain-raisers, the three broadcast on Friday were certainly representative of the ‘golden’ performances of past years: Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s controversial Panic from the 1995 Last Night, Beethoven’s third piano concerto from the 2017 First Night, and Abbado and The Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s account of Mahler’s third symphony. The Birtwistle piece came in for some flak at its first performance, but the sustained ‘almost concerto’ for saxophone and drums has a peculiar magnetism to it, and is worth revisiting, if only to applaud the performances from John Harle and Paul Clarvis.

Igor Levit’s account of the Beethoven (with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner) is a truly ‘mustn’t miss’ performance. Between them, they bring every one of the mood swings in the concerto into sharp focus, while maintaining a preciseness of touch. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is an ad hoc group, brought together for only a season each year, but the occasion of the performance of the Mahler, plus, of course, Abbado’s masterly command, resulted in a laureate performance back in 2007, the icing on whose cake was the deliciously creamy voice of Anna Larsson.

“…the BBC has risen to the occasion, and assembled a wonderful programme of carefully picked archive performances for broadcast…”

As one of its special treats, though, the broadcast concert also featured a new work; written as a tribute to Beethoven (in this, the 250th year since his birth), and entirely tailored to the requirements of lockdown (instrumentalists from all the BBC orchestras recorded individually and spliced together in the studio). Iain Farrington’s Beethoveniana was described in advance by the composer as “taking Beethoven’s music and putting it in a musical washing machine to see which colours run”, and what was expected was perhaps an intellectual exercise in a 20th century modernist style. Not a bit of it; this was as accessible a piece as one could want, full of a cheeky wit. It wasn’t quite Waldo de los Rios – although it came close on occasions – but it certainly contained a good helping of the same fond cut and shut irreverence that Charles Mackerras employed when constructing Pineapple Poll from the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Well known snatches of the symphonies whirled in and out of the material, which was given to unusual combinations of instruments, underscored by more modern harmonies, or taken out of ‘mood context’ (the opening theme of the sixth symphony given as a jazz riff; for example). Pastiches abounded: a hoedown; a big Bernstein-style number; sudden swerves into Saturday Night at the London Palladium and the orchestral timbres of British Light Music Classics. Sarah Gabriel had supplied new words for ‘Ode to Joy’, sung by members of the BBC Singers in a more contemplative arrangement than the ninth symphony’s usual bombast.

The piece will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 19 July, accompanied by Toby Amies’ intelligently crafted video in which two dancers respond to the music (their ‘West Side Story’ moves to the Bernstein segment are perfect), and shots of performers are projected, in monochrome, onto screens. There is even a guest appearance from Sir Henry Wood.

Details of this extraordinary Proms season can be found here: www.bbc.co.uk/proms


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