Weir: Stars, Night, Music and Light; Brahms: Academic Festival Overture; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2; Janacék; Glagolitic Mass

Grosvenor, Gerzmava, BBC SO, BBC Singers/Belohlávek

Royal Albert Hall, 17 July 2011 3.5 stars

GrosvenorAfter last year's grand entrée of Mahler 8, the Opening Night of the 2011 Proms restored to the occasion a flavour of Last Night miscellany, whilst also preserving a sense of the grandiloquent ambition that worked so well with the Mahler.

The miscellany was conveyed through the inclusion of Judith Weir's bespoke fanfare opening, and Brahms' somewhat dreary Overture (here spiced up a little with Malcolm Sergeant's choral addendum).

Stars, Night, Music and Light worked well as an opener, with its limpid and forthright setting, for grand forces, of a fragment of a George Herbert poem which focuses in on the incantatory chime of 'music and light, music and light'. Weir even managed to sneak into the piece's 170 second length some textural and dramatic surprise; the sudden descending organ chromatics towards the close were especially unexpected. Moments such as this vindicated Weir's choice as season opener. You imagine other composers tasked with this job would have been far less subtle, and perhaps unpleasantly blustery, in their choices.

I was a little disappointed in conductor Jirí Belohlávek's touch for the Weir; too little was being made of certain passages, whilst the sudden organ interjection right at the close jumped out gawkily from the preceding bland orchestral salutations. Such mildness beset the Brahms, hardly a substantial work in the first place (despite some wonderful transitional passages and orchestral colours), and as such the concert was at this point in danger of encroaching onto the sort of non-toxic middleground that haunts large occasions such as this one.

However, such fears did not have long to settle, for with the LisZt, and particularly with the appearance of young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, the air came to fizzle and spark with unexpected intimacies, and to gleam with striking flourishes, both solo and ensemble in nature. Grosvenor established a sense of elasticity, both of pulse and of emphasis, that was stunning, particularly in such a cavernous setting as this one. His tone is often Uchida-like in its shimmer, whilst his passagework and his dramatic handling of the overall shape of this single movement work made the Concerto feel entirely shot through with forceful but meditative theatre. His encore, following a warm reception, was brilliant: A Brahms' Hungarian Dance as mischievously and showily arranged by Georges Cziffra, sounding here as subtle in its bluntness as you imagine would be possible. Grosvenor appears again in Britten's Piano Concerto on August 6, a performance that, going on tonight's evidence, is sure to be full of surprise.

Belohlávek and the orchestra were on much more striking form throughout the Liszt, and this ascendancy was happily maintained into the second half, which was dedicated entirely to Janácek's strange and beguiling Glagolitic Mass, a majestic and massive celebration of mystical, pantheistic convictions, as told through vaunting solo vocals, heaving or whispered choral testimony, and startling orchestral inventions. The Mass was an excellent choice, fulfilling as it did the grand choral requirement of the Opening Night, giving the tiptop ranks of the BBC Singers and the BBC SO Chorus, not to mention an energised David Goode on organ, their chance to shine, without sacrificing aesthetic nuance to the God of spectacle.

Conductor and orchestra navigated a bristling course through the wonderful details and conceits of the work; the highpoint of the knotted and haunting 'Véruju' felt like a veritable tour de force of structured affective ebb and flow. Soloists were more of a mixed bag, with tenor Stefan Vinke (despite some heroic efforts in the aforementioned 'Véruju') and mezzo Dagmar Pecková having particular difficulty in projecting adequately above their orchestra, and thus their singing felt muddy and ill-defined, though the silvery and strikingly forceful singing of Hibla Gerzmava rivalled Grosvenor for performance of the evening. Overall, then, a solid start to what looks to be a solid, if comparatively sparing, season.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Benjamin Grosvenor

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