The First Night of the Proms is invariably an evening of familiar faces, familiar surroundings and – most importantly of all – familiar sounds. Yet the format of these proceedings adopted a rather nonconformist guise on this occasion. The traditional overture-concerto-symphony programme of last year's event was abandoned in favour of an eclectic, era-hopping collection of works which, with an additional sprinkling of Rule Britannia! and Pomp and Circumstance, could quite easily have been passed off as the running order for the Last Night. As the audience gradually swelled to its final capacity in the minutes leading up to the concert, one wondered how the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its Chief Conductor Jiři Bĕlohlávek would cope with such a bold and adventurous undertaking.
A simple gesture from Bĕlohlávek handed the new season's spine-tingling opening chords to the organ which, together with the orchestra, embarked on a performance of Richard Strauss' strident Festliches Präludium, Op. 61. Written for the opening of Vienna's new Konzerthaus in 1913, when the composer was nearing fifty, its unashamedly boisterous temperament could easily be interpreted as the work of a much younger musician. Bĕlohlávek showed well-placed restraint, never allowing the orgy of sound to rage out of control. Moments of rowdiness were seamlessly balanced with more delicate passagework, and the greatest dynamic was carefully held in reserve until the entrance of the twelve guest trumpets from the Royal College of Music.
Strauss made a return at the end of the first half in the form of his Four Last Songs, sensuously sung by Christine Brewer. Soprano and orchestra were not always as one, and balance was occasionally an issue when Brewer ventured into her deepest realms. Furthermore, leader Andrew Haveron's aggressive, Hollywoodesque vibrato threatened to wring the life out of the ethereal violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen. However, Brewer's velvety tone, particularly in her upper register, was an unremitting source of pleasure, as was Bĕlohlávek's navigation through the composer's sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque orchestral texture.
In between these monumental works by Strauss the ensemble dwindled to chamber-orchestra size for what was arguably the highlight of the evening. Nicholas Daniel's risk-taking account of Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C major, K.314 was an unadulterated treasure, bursting with exuberant charisma and optimistic allure. Invitingly accompanied by the orchestra, Daniel injected a real sense of fun into the jocular outer movements, whilst the central Adagio non troppo was marked by a recapitulation of captivating stillness, achieving an astonishing, even haunting air of intimacy – a remarkable achievement in the capacious confines of the Royal Albert Hall. Granted, not everything that Daniel attempted turned to gold – the occasional virtuosic run floundered, and the odd note failed to sound. However, this was well-known Mozart at its utopic heights – a glorious voyage of rediscovery that had an entire concert hall enraptured and enthralled.
After the interval we were treated to Beethoven's relatively unheralded Rondo in B flat major for piano and orchestra, a work without opus number that may have been conceived as the original finale to the composer's Piano Concerto No. 2. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard's stylistic and at times witty phrasing befitted the music, and the orchestra made some delightfully perky contributions during the pianist's long periods of inactivity. However, whilst there is no denying the pianist's proficiency in Beethoven – his recording of the Piano Concertos with Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a modern-day classic – on this occasion both he and the orchestra failed to find the spark that had ignited the Mozart.
The Beethoven was flanked by the work of two contemporary composers whose dual centenary is being championed at this year's concert series. Aimard remained at the keyboard for the UK premiere of Elliot Carter's Caténaires for solo piano, a grand whirlwind of a gesture that he himself inspired. His thrillingly assured delivery of the relentless, undulating torrent of moto perpetuo semiquavers showed why he is such a revered exponent of modern keyboard music. The second half had opened with a vigorous performance of 'Dieu parmi nous' from Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur by organist Wayne Marshall. Marshall's control of the work's complex rhythmic structure was mesmerising, as was his focused flexing of the organ's muscular capabilities, most notably in the final crescendo that brought the movement to a triumphant close.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, driven by its on-form, twenty-strong brass section, rounded the concert off in suitably ecstatic style with Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54. Bĕlohlávek expertly guided the ensemble through the myriad of inner lines and chromaticisms, constantly moulding the composer's three prescribed themes – 'longing', 'dream' and 'victory' – to produce a highly engaging account. The orchestra's woodwind section must be lauded for its iridescent contribution, from the subterranean cajoles of the contrabassoon to the flute and piccolo pirouettes that preceded the climactic statement of the victory motif.
It might be argued that none of the evening's performances – very fine, though they were – will enter the annals of legendary Proms renditions that will be recalled for years to come. So what warrants the alignment of the five stars of musical criticism? This daringly disparate programme – journeying from Richard Strauss to Scriabin via Mozart, Strauss again, Messiaen, Beethoven and Elliot Carter – emerged as a beautifully coherent whole, an enriching potpourri as opposed to a hopeless melange. This was a thoroughly all-encompassing occasion, and a wonderfully auspicious start to the 2008 Proms season.