To open the world’s biggest classical music festival, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new Chief Conductor, the Czech Jiří Belohlávek, combined music that celebrated the year’s two composer-birthday boys, Mozart and Shostakovich, with music from his own homeland.
In the event, it was a mixed affair, with some occasionally glorious playing from the orchestra marred by disappointing turns from the soloists, and sometimes mundane conducting from Belohlávek.
To start, we heard what has become the tiresomely obligatory Mozart. Not for the first time this year I wondered why music from the greatest composer of all time had been programmed just for the sake of it. The orchestra seemed barely awake for the overture from Le nozze di Figaro, which was precise but dull.
Italian superstar soprano Barbara Frittoli then sang ‘Porgi amor’ with such introverted tone that the orchestra was reduced to a very bare accompaniment indeed. Perhaps sensing the audience’s disappointment, she proceeded to rattle through ‘Mi trad’ from Don Giovanni at an excessive pace. The orchestra’s internal coordination was poor during the aria’s recitative, while conductor, orchestra and singer all started (and ended) at different speeds in the aria itself. Frittoli’s voice is ideal for Mozart in many ways, but here her inability to project and the lack of inspiration from the podium left one feeling cold. Where was the sharp edge that is so inherent to this music?
Things weren’t improved by a lacklustre rendition of ‘Vltava’ from Smetana’s Má vlast. It would not have been unreasonable to hope for something special when Belohlávek was conducting his native repertoire, but despite beautiful flute solos and a vivid sense of orchestral texture, the performance lacked warmth and interest. In a great interpretation such as Colin Davis gave with the LSO last year this music can evoke the titular river with vivid colours; these were particularly deficient here.
Things started to pick up a little with Dvorák’s Te Deum, again finding the conductor on home territory. He has long pioneered this work, which was written to celebrate the composer’s appointment as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York in 1892. Yet there were again rough edges: the BBC Symphony Chorus was in tentative voice, despite some good word-pointing, and Sir John Tomlinson sounded hopelessly decrepit at the top of the register in the bass solos. His only full tone was in the final ‘Benedicamus Patrem’, but I found his vocal interpretation of the line which means ‘Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost’ too sardonic and menacing. Frittoli, meanwhile, had warmed up by this time, and even if her words were lost in the first movement, her crystalline tone in the final part more than made up for it.
After the interval, the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth was celebrated with a performance of his Fifth Symphony. At times, the orchestra resembled their old, barn-storming selves, but I felt that the first movement needed more of a sense of architecture and the second was too pedantic and slow. Some nice antiphonal effects between violins and cellos in the opening bars were later succeeded by a longer, yearning second subject violin melody. Typical Shostakovich percussive effects timpani, snare drum, glockenspiel added spice to proceedings. The second movement lacked bite regardless of its admirable precision, and though the trombones and horns were excellent there was a general absence of flair.
Only in the third movement did we finally hear top-notch music making. The cello’s heartfelt melody and the clever flute duo in opposing registers were highlights, and the performance’s elusive intensity resulted in a breath-taking silence at the music’s close. The finale was suitably rousing, with big timpani rolls and blazing brass sending us home roused in the end, after a curiously mixed First Night of the Proms.