BBC Proms reviews

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

15 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Over the last few years the original format of the First Night of the Proms had been tinkered with, delivering mixed results. Attempts at showcasing examples from each of the years thematic stands resulted in a string of anaemic first nights bitty, piecemeal and without anything for the audience to really sink its teeth into.

Thankfully things have changed. There were three pieces in the first half of this Prom which inaugurated the 117th Proms season, and one hefty choral work, Jančeks Glagolitic Mass after the interval. Another change to the proceedings (this time a sartorial one) was that for the first time I can remember the gentlemen of the BBC Symphony Orchestra wore white tie and tails. After looking scruffy for many a season in open-necked black shirts, it was heartening to see them looking like a proper orchestra. I hope this means that the ridiculous notion of dumbing-down the way a symphony orchestra looks has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Prom began with the world premiere of a coruscating choral fanfare entitled Stars, Night, Music and Light by Judith Weir. Given that Jančeks choral work is scored for large orchestra, organ and three timpanists, Weir appropriately scored her brilliant 3-minute work for the same forces. There were sly references to the Glagolitic Mass throughout and the words were taken from a 17th Century poem by George Herbert entitled Man The starres have us to bed; Night draws the curtain, which the sunne withdraws; Musick and light attend our head. This piece really lit up the Royal Albert Hall.

After that came a rather overblown version, arranged by Malcolm Sargent, of Brahms Academic Festival Overture which was followed by Liszts Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major. I find it difficult to warm to Liszts idiom, but the performance was notable for the Proms debut of the prodigiously gifted 19 year old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. He is a BBC new generation artist and was a finalist in Young Musician of the Year at the tender age of 11. Technically his interpretation was assured maybe the works sonorities were lacking in places but he gave a dazzling performance of this demanding work.

Jančeks Glagolitic Mass is not only one of the most original choral works in the standard repertoire but one of the strangest as well. It refuses to conform to any traditional settings of the Mass, maybe due to the fact that Janček was a Pantheist, and being Slav in origin tests soloists, choir and orchestra to the limits. Given Bělohláveks affinity to Czech music, the performance had the kind of visceral impact that any halfway decent performance of this masterpiece requires. It was far more impassioned than Boulezs emotionless take on the work three years ago.

Using a new edition prepared by Jirí Zahrádka and Leoš Faltus which reverts to the 1927 September version of Jančeks score, the sound world and orchestration comes across as markedly different from the version with which most listeners would be familiar. More complex rhythms pervade the work, but nothing seemed to faze the players of the BBCSO, who delivered a consistently exciting vision of the work. The choral singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers was full-blooded and superbly nuanced and there was a stellar line-up of soloists, with particularly telling contributions coming from the gleaming soprano of Hibla Gerzmava and the stentorian tenor, Stefan Vinke. Organist David Goode provided the necessary agility and volume in the organ solos, and one left the Royal Albert Hall amazed at the originality and daring of one of the 73 year old composers most audacious works.

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