BBC Proms reviews

Prom 1: BBCSO/Bělohlávek – Strauss, Mozart, Messiaen, Carter, Beethoven, Scriabin @ Royal Albert Hall, London

18 July 2008

Jir Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra got the 114th Proms season off to a rousing start with something of a chocolate box programme, covering a range of flavours and acting as a taster for what’s to come over the next eight weeks.

Introducing the Royal Albert Hall’s mighty organ as one of the featured ingredients of this year’s festival, the pounding opening chords of Richard Strauss’ Festliches Präludium lifted bottoms off seats as they thundered through the auditorium. A piece of bombast punctuated by interludes of grandiloquence, this 1913 overture is contemporaneous with the composer’s Alpine Symphony, threatening to break into the tone poem at times but limiting its mountain tour to a circumnavigation of the uppermost peaks (think of the “Auf dem Gipfel” moment of Alpine Symphony extended over 12 minutes). It proved a rather good opener, with extra brass hauled in from the Royal College of Music.

The tone descended to a much subtler and more reflective level with a sprightly performance of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, K314, soloist Nicholas Daniel performing his own cadenzas, the first of which had bird-song elasticity (cheekiness marked his whole approach). The crystalline playing of the BBC SO cut through the hall’s acoustic surprisingly well and fared somewhat better than the following Four Last Songs (Strauss), which ended the first half.

To lose your star soprano is unfortunate (Karita Mattila having withdrawn just days earlier) but securing Christine Brewer at that late stage looked like a reversal of fortune. Tempi were slightly slow and the reading less luxuriant than one may be used to but Brewer was certainly on form and the work is such a sure-fire hit that few will have gone into the interval dissatisfied.

The second half introduced two of this year’s centenary celebrants, with Messaien’s Dieu parmi nous from La Nativité du Seigneur splashing lavish, if not downright bonkers, harmonies from the nearest to the furthest auditor. Wayne Marshall was the virtuoso soloist and another, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, dazzled with the UK premiere of Elliott Carter’s short piano piece Caténaires. The title describes the curving forms that lines slung between two supports make (think electricity pylons) and the exhausting strings of notes buzz back and forth like sparks eating up a dynamite cord before taking a comical plunge to finish.

Aimard’s other contribution was Beethoven’s delightful Rondo in B flat and the programme finished with Scriabin’s sensuous Poem of Ecstasy, played with precision and vigour by the resident orchestra. The mixed and varied programme made for a tangy bitter-sweet start to the festival, with hints of riches to come.

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Prom 1: BBCSO/Bělohlávek @ Royal Albert Hall, London