BBC Proms 2016 - Week 1

And here were are again in what looks like the least inspiring Proms season on paper for many a year.The BBC's approach is to talk everything up but of course if everything is the best then nothing is.  We have many weeks of this ahead - as usual I won't pick out everything but try to bring some light into the shadows behind the BBC promotional machinery.

Prom 1: My allergy to the First Night is nearly as intense as that to my mania against the Last Night of the Proms, so what was there of special import?  Sol Gabetta might have been better in almost any cello concerto other than the Elgar in my world.  She is very talented and played it well, but beautifully as the resplendent BBC Symphony Orchestra played it, there's something a little too fussy about Oramo's Elgar.  On the radio she was too closely miked too.  The second half Prokofiev's Nevsky Cantata was patchy - lusty singing and playing but never really caught light.

I'll ignore the Romeo and Juliet Overture as too often played and concentrated on two short pieces which are what the Proms are all about.  Gabetta's encore, Vasks' short solo for cello and voice "Dolcissimo" felt like a breath of fresh air against the Elgar.  It's lyrical response to voice and purely immediate response to the sounds of the cello (in no form, but in some pattern) is glorious in the huge acoustic of the RAH.  The other short piece of note was La Marseillaise played without comment by Oramo in tribute and solidarity with the French people who had suffered the most brutal carnage in Nice the night before.  Only the Proms can respond with a symphony orchestra in full bloodied commitment - transcending language.  6000 people stood in the hall in salute, the RAH organ was bathed in the colours of the Tricolour.  I recalled that fateful night in a deserted London on 11th September 2002 - when Eschenbach led the Orchestre de Paris in the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica.  Little did we know how terrorism would engulf our world - I think is is worse than we feared.

Prom 2: Boris Godunov given in it's rawest version - Mussorgsky's original of 1869 given by the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden under Sir Antonio Pappano and featuring as the Bryn Terfel as the Tsar Boris.  It was played and sung with the kind of conviction the Prokofiev missed the night before.  It's not an opera I know well but I will listen again to get to know it better.  It shone!

PCM 1: The first chamber prom had Paul Lewis and his wife and the Vertavo string quartet at Cardogan Hall.  Debussy's Cello Sonata and Mozart's Piano Concerto No 12 in it's chamber version were nicely done but the best modern music of the week was to be found in Dutilleux's Ainsi La nuit - a meditation on Van Gogh.

Prom 4: Gergiev returns once again still worshipped despite his homophobic comments.  The Prom was pretty mediocre. Perhaps worth noting Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony No 3 'Jesus Messiah, save us!' was as melodramatic as they come.  But baffling…

Prom 5: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis was as fine a performance as one would want to hear.  The Halle and Manchester Chamber choirs and soloists (Nylund, Remmert, Skelton & Müller-Brachmann) had a marvellous precision, weight and attack.  A bigger surprise for me was the magnificent conducting of the work by Giancarlo Noseda a former chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic but one whom I could seldom get on with in Beethoven.  Here he won me over with his careful pointing of the choral emphasis and support of that fine orchestra underneath it.  As ever in Beethoven the question is balance and he found such a happy path between the absurd demands of the composer and his vision of something spiritual. That vision was remarkably achieved in a sweltering temperature with 6000 people to witness it:  one could not imagine a better live performance.  It lifted my heart and reinforced my regard for the work.

Prom 7 was my first visit to the Proms in the best part of two years.  I was there to watch and hear one of my favourite conductors on dsic and in relayed concerts - Marc Minkowski.  He is my kind of conductor  - a risk taker, a master of drama and so often one who guides me to new places.  I recall his Schubert and Haydn London symphony cycles with deep joy, his Symphonie Fantastique is streets ahead of the rest of the field and he has introduced me to composers from Rameau to Roussel.  In the flesh he holds the baton nearly horizontal in front of his body and his beat is clear - but the rest of his body dances with a tireless energy and enthusiasm.  But in this concert "the voice" was paramount and he created something magical in each piece. He conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Faure's Shylock Suite is sweet and ardent - here Minkowski placed the tenor soloist Julien Behr in the orchestra and conjured a magical world (far way from the tension of Shakespeare's play it has to be said).  But a lovely piece last played at the Proms 2007 by Minkowski and his Les Musiciens du Louvre et Grenoble nine years ago.  Hard to understand how Sir Henry Wood missed it.  The second piece was Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite - first performed at the Proms in 1958, Without singers Minkowski had the "voices" of the solo instruments standing around him ahead of the groups of strings.  It was tremendously effective and he gave these players massive plaudits at the end, quite deservedly.  One can imagine this is a piece that requires great virtuosity to deliver with verve,  The BBC Symphony were magnificent in both the piquancy of the score but also it's marvellous poise.

Both performances were outdone by an very special reading of the Stabat Mater by Poulenc unaccountably getting it's Proms premiere.  Written after the death of his friend, Poulenc's exquisitely searing set of 12 miniatures are mandatory hearing I think for all lovers of his music.  Julie Fuchs delivered three ethereal soprano solos for powerful beauty in sympathy with Minkowski's ardent conducting but all of the honours and plaudits go to the BBC orchestra for its simple delivery of poetry and power, and the BBC Singers split into two choirs of five voices.  The performance had those of us in the Gallery in awe - high in the Proms "Chapel" where choral and orchestral sounds blend in a way they don't further down the building, it seemed both urgent and timeless, gentle and powerful, intimate and public in it's grief.  I shall not forget it in a long time.

Minkowski ensures heaps of applause for his soloists and choirs and rightly so.  He is self-effacing in a amusingly coy way.  Just as the final curtain call concluded he stepped forward and thank the audience for coming to "these concerts and cultural events against the disease of modern times".  Time again to think how these great works of art might offer salve to the fevered minds and damaged persons caught up in the war  of our times.  Poulenc's pain and grief is in too many French hearts.

Week 1 built to a very high standard - let's hope it continues.


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