Prom 1: BBCSO/Belohlavek

Walton: Portsmouth Point; Elgar: Cello Concerto; Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Royal Albert Hall, 13 July 2007 3 stars

Paul Watkins

It seemed rather ironic that the most disappointing incident during last year's BBC Proms centred on a work whose text exudes unremitting joyous ecstasy.

Not only was the cancellation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - to be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach on 3 September 2006 - the first instance in which a Proms concert had to be abandoned because of events unrelated to World War II; it also represented only the fifth time during nearly eighty years of association between the Proms and the BBC that the "Choral" Symphony did not appear (three of which were also caused by the occurrences of 1939-1945).

Fittingly, therefore, there was a sense of closure as Jiri Belohlávek strode to the podium of the Royal Albert Hall at the opening BBC Prom of 2007 to conduct this, the first of two scheduled Proms performances of Beethoven's monumental masterpiece.

The music that unfolded before us over the work's first three movements had much to offer, even though the BBC Symphony Orchestra never quite reached top gear. Though the exposition and development of the Allegro ma non troppo would have benefited from greater dramatic purpose, the shortcomings were tempered by an intensely surging recapitulation. The Molto vivace - Presto came closest to acquiring a real cutting edge, as the orchestra conveyed a near-sinister rhythmic drive in the scherzo sections whilst making the most of the central trio's contrasting satisfaction. The subsequent slow movement received a heartfelt if somewhat inconspicuous rendition, with Belohlávek gently extracting charming accounts of both principal themes without ever threatening originality.

The Finale was a completely different story. The BBCSO finally began firing on all cylinders, inspired from the very beginning by the bold declarations of the cellos and double basses. This whirlwind introduction then gave way to a simple and serene account of the famous 'Ode to Joy' melody, after which came plenty of glorious music-making in which to revel. The 6/8 march was executed with a delightful pomposity, whilst Beethoven's harkening back to previous material was deftly performed. The choir - a combined Philharmonia and BBC Symphony chorus - were extremely well drilled, having memorised their lines which, in turn, made for an awe-inspiring visual and aural spectacle.

Bass René Pape shone as the pick of the four vocalists. His rhetorical, declamatory style in the opening entry was immediately arresting, commanding rather than inviting his fellow musicians to join him in song. Tenor Paul Groves' pleasant but underwhelming tone, on the other hand, was accompanied by a worrisome over-reliance on the score. The ensemble during the quartets - as is so often the case - left something to be desired. Indeed, soprano Maria Haan and mezzo Patricia Bardon, who both sang beautifully in their own rights, failed to find anything in common other than their own tonal disparity.

Nevertheless, this is a relatively negligible matter in what was otherwise a thrilling finale, for which the musicians of the BBCSO finally played to their full capabilities - something they seemingly refrained from doing in the concert's opening work. Their lively offering of William Walton's 'Portsmouth Point' overture gave the impression that something was being held in reserve both physically and emotionally, and perhaps understandably so. Though this did not affect the woodwind's crisp portrayal of the second subject, the strings could have exuded tighter control on the work's dauntingly exigent rhythmic structure.

No such problems for the BBCSO in the notoriously sparse orchestral scoring of Elgar's Cello Concerto, which concluded the first half. However, it was a shame that soloist Paul Watkins often lacked the sparkle and spontaneity that B?lohlávek was coaxing from his orchestral musicians. The cello's opening gambit lacked gravity, and Watkins' phrasing, particularly in the first movement's principal theme, verged on being formulaic. One might classify this performance, particularly in the outer movements, as stereotypically English - reserved, resolute and understated - when what was really needed was plaintive, elegiac passion.

That said, Watkins' playing was not without moments of wonder: his semiquaver passages in the second movement were utterly captivating in both flare and accuracy, whilst the ensuing Adagio witnessed poignant consensus between soloist, conductor and orchestra. The overall effect, though, was somewhat lacklustre. Memories of Yo-Yo Ma's spellbinding 2003 Proms performance with David Zinman's Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra still endure.

By William Norris