This season’s First Night opened with the first musical tribute marking the half-century anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on Mare tranquillitatis. Zosha di Castri’s commissioned work Long is the Journey, Short is the Memory incorporates textual elements by Giacomo Leopardi, Xiaoulu Guo and Sappho into a glittering orchestral sound-world that makes lavish use of tuned percussion, trombone slides, menacing low brass, and harp notes that change pitch after sounding. The piece is slow to build, but there are magical moments: an almost-Latin rhythmic drive to the Sappho sections; some bluesy clarinet runs; and a magnificent harp-and-woodwind whirl leading to a unison choral statement referencing the Chinese mission to the moon’s dark side (and the sprouting of the first plant there), followed by the triumphantly separated syllables of A-po-llo!. The BBC SO under Karina Canellakis tackled the complex orchestral material with verve and surety, but the BBC Singers, although on-point with their largely homophonic note clusters, were perhaps too few in number to do the work justice: not only were there were occasions when they were lost in the instrumental dynamic, but there were moments where the piece would have gained a more effective punch from a choral wall-of-sound.
This year also marks the 150th year of Henry Wood’s birth, and some of the programming reflects his early Proms model. Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, the first of a series of what Wood would have styled ‘novelties’, received its first Proms performance on Friday. It was an oddly controversial work for the composer, as its folk-tale nature seemed to mark his transition from absolute music to a more programmatic idiom. There’s nothing to frighten the horses in it – some jolly dances, a gallopy-gallopy section for the nobleman’s hunt, a charming harp-infused spinning-wheel theme – and Canellakis and the orchestra made effortless work of it, delivering a nuanced and accessible account that bounced along unthreateningly. But goodness, it’s dull; it’s definitely music that you’d want playing on the radio while you got on with something else. The 1896 Musical Times reviewer opined that “… a piece of such length, containing so few striking ideas and so little of interest in the workmanship … has not been heard … for many a day”. Sadly, this remains true.
The Czech theme continued in the final work, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a glorious orchestral-choral-and-organ interpretation of the form that is more secular than sacred – notwithstanding its use of an arcane ecclesiastical language. The orchestra was joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus and a quartet of soloists mostly from Eastern Europe: Asmik Grigorian (soprano); Jennifer Johnston (Mezzo); Ladislav Elgr (tenor) and Jan Martiník (bass). All of these conspired to produce an electrifying performance that brought to the fore Janáček’s fractured style that resists all accusations of romantic wallowing: a reluctance to hang about on any note, and the harmonic centre ground barely sketched in, allowing the extremes of pitch to stand out. The choral passages had a co-ordinated exactitude to them, such that the interjections in the ‘Kyrie’ were bang-on, and the scatter-gun ‘Amens’ at the conclusion of the ‘Gloria’ melded perfectly with the mercurial orchestral material; the composer’s dynamic requirements (he was fond of crescendo/diminuendo pairings) were beautifully observed. Johnston’s creamy tone enlivened her brief couple of lines in the latter movements; Grigorian’s big, spread voice was spot on for the soprano sections, and was balanced by Martiník’s solid edginess for the bass solos; Elgr’s clear tenor glistened over the chorus in the ‘Credo’. With Peter Holder’s cheekily over-the-top choice of a generous registration for the penultimate, organ-solo movement, this year’s Proms season was well and truly declared open.