The First Night of the Proms 2009

BBC SO, Coote, Tynan, Hough/Belohlávek

Royal Albert Hall, 19 July 2009 3.5 stars

Stephen HoughThe 2009 Proms opened on Friday night with a rich and versatile performance from Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. An impressive line-up of soloists providing guest appearances throughout the night.

Occasions such as this one will always convey something of a one size fits all approach, and Friday's concert was no exception. The programme was made a sprawling potpourri of music that was meant to encapsulate some of the main themes of this year's festival. Short and (in the main) rather curiously shaped works from a host of nineteenth and early twentieth century composers were spread over three 'halves.' These works proved uniformly entertaining, though the absence of something more extended, and indeed of any new or even vaguely contemporary works, meant the concert largely promoted pageantry more than it did poetry.

Stravinsky's Fireworks — a thrilling and vivid mini-overture charged with the creative energy of early maturity — opened the concert. Belohlávek brought out a panoply of fizzing colours from the band. It was this piece, along with Scherzo Fantastique, that first turned Diaghilev's ear towards Stravinsky, and thus led to the creative partnership that would foster the remarkable run of ballets from the composer in later years. These ballets will be performed in their entirety at this year’s Proms.

Chabrier's Ode ŕ la musique was next. It is a piece with a beguiling lightness that belies the supple harmonic rhythms and textures within. The conductor was exquisite in his tempi and phrasing here; music such as this could so easily become winsome or glib in the wrong hands. This performance was glowing. Ailish Tynan (who along with Alice Coote represented on the night this year's focus on former BBC New Generation Artists) was a bright soloist. She made much of the luscious grace notes in the line, though the women's chorus (from the BBC Symphony Chorus) somewhat smothered her at the most fulsome cadences. All four of Tchaikovsky's works for piano and orchestra appear this year. An assured Stephen Hough joined the orchestra for a full-blooded reading of the single movement third piano concerto. It is a work typical of its composer in being somewhat banal in structure and development, but rich in theme and texture. The central cadenza was head-spinning and effusive.

Labeque by Brigitte LacombePoulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos (here signalling the festival's concentration on music for multiple pianos this year) took up the central plank of the programme in between the two intervals. It is an utterly bizarre confection — 'a party piece' according to Robert Maycock in the programme notes — that mixes gamelan-imitation, Mozart-parody, baroque gestures, parlour music, and neo-classicism, into a twisting and turning score that you're never sure of. It is by turns droll, moving, funny, and thrilling. The through-line could never be convincing, but the sudden return of the gamelan-music at the end following a vertiginous finale did make some strange sense. Katia and Marielle Labčque, all stamping feet and leaping arms, were perfect soloists. The levity was maintained into their favoured encore repertoire, a cheerful and lusty miniature from Adolfo Berio.

The most substantial piece, Elgar's In The South, followed after the break. It is a familiar score with many previous Proms outings, so it is to the performer's credit that it sounded so stunningly fresh, and full of capricious invention as it did here. The broad shape was conveyed with clarity, whilst the two central episodes, the first booming with barnstorming low brass, the second aching with serenity from muted strings and singing viola and oboe, finally moved this concert into the realm of the sublime.

Brahms' ingeniously conceived Alto Rhapsody for solo contralto, male chorus and orchestra, was a showcase for the darkly glowing tones of Alice Coote, though the overall structure felt somewhat disjointed, and Coote and the chorus occasionally slipped out of sync with each other. The closing work, Bruckner's neat setting of Psalm 150 for chorus, orchestra, and brief solo soprano (a returning Tynan), was given something of a more loose-limbed performance from the massed forces on stage, though the huge Hallelujahs that book ended the work did not soar quite as they should have. Still, Belohlávek was attentive to the contrapuntal textures, and to the work's broad momentum, in a performance that brightly rounded off a long and occasionally frothy evening of music.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Stephen Hough; the Labeque sisters by Brigitte Lacombe


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