BBC Proms reviews

Prom 1: BBC SO/Belohlávek @ Royal Albert Hall, London

17 July 2009

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

As with Roger Wright’s very first programme last year, the 115th Proms Season’s opener was a fusion of flavours and hints of themes to come over the coming weeks.

Stravinsky, whose whole ballet canon is due for performance, was represented by his four minute evocation of Fireworks which glittered and danced under Jiří Belohlávek’s baton. The short, sharp sample of Stravinsky’s early style was followed by Chabrier’s swelling and rapturous Ode la musique, with soprano Ailish Tynan as vocalist.

Tchaikovsky’s full set of piano concertos will be heard this year, seemingly in reverse order, with the one-movement No. 3 played with sufficient verve by Stephen Hough on this first night. As the pianist points out in a programme note, the composer’s final work is no indicator of an imminent self-imposed death, perhaps belying the long-held belief that Tchaikovsky’s death was suicide.

Rescued from an abandoned Seventh Symphony, it’s a curious, forestalled work, which might benefit from the two extra movements the composer’s pupil Taneyev tacked on in later years.

The four hands of the Labéque sisters, brightly coloured bookends, whirled through the contrasting exuberance and static reflection of Poulenc’s wayward Concerto for two pianos (piano duos another theme) while the BBC SO rose to sumptuous heights for Elgar’s sunny pastoral stroll In the South.

Alice Coote’s combination of dramatic intensity and vocal beauty are perfect for Goethe’s forlorn Winter Journey, as set by Brahms in the Alto Rhapsody. A more intimate arena would have helped but the mezzo still shone.

Bruckner’s rousing Psalm 150, bringing together the massed forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus which until then had been split by gender (women in the Chabrier, men in the Brahms), brought the evening to an uplifting close.

Despite some fine playing by the orchestra, under a conductor whose command of them has grown and grown, the concert felt choppy and disjointed, due to the pick n’ mix programming and the inclusion of two intervals. Works that engaged individually amounted to a slightly dissatisfying whole and one looks forward to evenings of more sustained substance over the next eight weeks.

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