Music First Night of the Proms (Royal Albert Hall)

Ceasefire's Classical and Opera critic, Paul Guest, reviews the first night of this year's BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

Music & Dance - Posted on Saturday, July 16, 2011 0:00 - 0 Comments

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By Paul Guest

First Night of the Proms, Royal Albert Hall (BBC Proms)

Benjamin Grosvenor, piano.
Hibla Gerzmava, soprano.
Dagmer Peckova, mezzo-soprano.
Stefan Vinke, tenor.
Jan Martinik, bass.
David Goode, organ.

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Jiri Belohlavek, conductor.

Approaching the Royal Albert Hall after a year’s absence is always somewhat rather joyous, with the prospect of the summer season beginning with a bang. I always get really hyped up about the first night and I always invariably forget how ordinary it is in comparison to the Proms’ last night.

Judith Weir’s Stars, Night, Music and Light was the night’s world première and the only lasting memory of the work is somewhat a ‘funked up’ organ piece which sounded like it should be in a bad 1980s pop song and then the words ‘music’ and ‘light’ constantly repeated by the chorus, apart from which the piece was of little worth.

With all of its semiquaver, rest goodness Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture was the next piece to grace the night, a piece often heard at the Proms in this particular arrangement by Malcolm Sargent; it didn’t go down well. In fact, it really dragged on – and I like Brahms’ music – with nothing lively about it, it never jumped out at me which alas brought up my worries about the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s ability.

There wasn’t any sense of fun or indeed mischief as the piece went on. The trumpets flat on their first entry in the second theme and bassoons making late entries saw the BBCSO all over the place, although the strings seemed tight. The chorus enters with an exceedingly big sound that filled every gap in the Hall.

Despite its imperfections, how appropriate that this piece came before what was to become the highlight of this first night: The chorus sings “Vivant academiae musicae!” – in English meaning ‘Long live music colleges!” – and, indeed, it is London’s Royal Academy of Music that produced the next talent to carve his mark on Proms history, the 19 year old Benjamin Grosvenor, the youngest person to ever open the BBC Proms and what a debut it was.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is admittedly not my favourite, I much prefer the much more virtuoso Concerto No. 1, however, Benjamin Grosvenor owned it. Again I would question the BBCSO’s capabilities, the concerto demands eloquent cellist action, yet no such eloquence was found, the cello melody was stilted and had no flow or fluency (from cellist Graham Bradshaw), but thank goodness Grosvenor was on the mark. He glided up and down the piano with clarity and grace demanding every ear in the Albert Hall.

Grosvenor didn’t overdo it either, and it is easy for a pianist to whack out melodic greatness without following the finer details of score merely because the space that the sound has to fill is somewhat larger than most other concert halls. However, Grosvenor respected every part of the composition and gracefully, if not bravely kept his pianistic integrity intact.

Janacek Glagolitic Mass filled the second half. Ironically, Janacek was a professed atheist but went to school in a monastery, so I guess we can forgive that he wrote a religious work. I haven’t much to say about the orchestra, the bass instruments sounded very dry and really dragged on into a sorry state. However, the orchestra’s vocal colleagues really lifted us into the piece with absolute splendid colour and sounds, while singing Janacek’s slightly exotic and sometimes discordant choral chords. Also a marvellous and exciting organ solo from David Goode, which was something of a highlight in the Janacek Mass.

Well folks, the summer has just begun and continues tonight with Prom 2: William Tell, Rossini’s last opera, four hours of bel canto extravagance, more on that tomorrow.

Every BBC Prom is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and various BBC Proms are televised on BBC One, Two, Four and also the BBC HD Channel. The BBC Proms end on the 12th September 2011 and there will be a Prom every night until then live from the Royal Albert Hall.

Paul Guest is Ceasefire‘s Classical Music and Opera critic. He also contributes to The Guardian, WIRED, Classical Music Magazine, and is the resident interviewer at Opera Britannia.

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