Proms 2017 - Week 1, Prom 1

The opening BBC Prom of the year usually strikes a pose as it were to set the series off with a bang.   This concert was no different in it's end though the posture was more sophisticated and musically interesting than of late.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra always opens the proceedings - this year conducted by Edward Gardner, with a renowned soloist in Beethoven's Third Concerto and massed choirs for the second half in a piece by a living composer. Gardner is a shrewd judge of a Prom audience and this somewhat understated programme had hidden and unexpected depth.  The concert got masses of coverage - on social media, across two TV channels and on Radio 3 where two presenters bubbled over with enthusiasm and superlatives.  Not much was said about the music and much more about the will be a culture shock for those who take the First Night as typical into the second night of austere Sibelius and Elgar - not many laughs there.

One new thing to be applauded was the Lossless Radio feed which is supplemented by an binaural radio feed too.  See the BBC Radio R and D page for details.

First piece was a 6 minute joust by Tom Coults (b. 1988) called St John's Dance - commissioned in February and given it's World Premiere in the biggest of world music festivals. Based - one sensed loosely in the post piece interview on R3 - on the idea of groups of people dancing to the point of collapse, choreomania, which was reported in continental Europe in the 14th and 15th Centuries.  I enjoyed the verve of the piece - especially after second hearing - there's a sneaky boisterous quality too.  The mix of dance rhythms, growing momentum and colour make for an interesting piece.  It was a grand opening - energetic, dazzlingly scored and just a little bit manic.

The Beethoven Concerto is in C minor and probably dates from around 1800 but was first performed in 1803 with the composer as soloist.  It's sits in that period where the composer was stretching his muscles before the boldness of Eroica but contemporaneous with the Second symphony.  It is sweet but not always.  The BBCSO didn't appeared to be slimmed down but Gardner's approach took some hints from history and his rhythms were tightly sprung and lines taut but the wide dynamics were probably needed in the RAH.  The Proms soloist was Igor Levitt. I've heard a certain amount of his Beethoven in recital on the radio over the past couple of years.  It has always been beautifully crafted and tempered and in this performance he repeatedly drew exquisite sounds in the quiet passages and the RAH audience (coughs aside) were rightly rapt.  But I find his extremes of focus sometimes lose contact with the grander sweep.  On this occasion conductor Gardner took care of that and there was something restless, bustling and fervent about the music as a result.  Levitt - who through his a Twitter account and elsewhere has made his views on Brexit well known, picked the European anthem - though neither Beethoven (it's composer), or Liszt (it's arranger) knew that it would have political overtones by 2017.

Finally combined choirs who were brigaded under the banner of the BBC Proms Youth Choir and the BBC Symphony Chorus together 300 souls, and a 100+ strong BBC Symphony Orchestra, gave a compelling and visceral reading of John Adam's Harmonium - three settings of poems - one by John Donne and two by Emily Dickinson.  It is a great piece and I haven't heard it done better.  Gardner's zeal reaped massive rewards in terms of instrumental detail and eruptive energy.  He maintained a grip on the structure of the movements, the complex lines and rhythms but it felt entirely organic.  The choirs - elegantly captured by BBC sound - were wonderfully punchy, not that John Adam's scoring always needs that.  And when blended made a fantastic wall of sound. Kudos to the chorus masters and some of the singers who were new to singing completely - what an experience for those kids.  And it was great to hear something big and modern in the first concert but....  it is worth remembering that Harmonium was premiered in 1987 in the UK (by Simon Rattle) but had its world premiere in San Francisco in April 1981 - 36 years ago.  It bears the same time differential to 2017 as Brahms' Fourth symphony does to Malcolm Sargent's debut in 1921.  So not that modern...

A lovely concert to hear. Catch it on BBC iPlayer or iPlayer radio.


Popular Posts