Prom 1: BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Belohlavek, Royal Albert Hall, London
Tuesday 21 July 2009
A festive start, to be sure. A flourish of fireworks (Stravinsky's, I hasten to add), an unfamiliar ode to music, two piano concertos fielding three pianists, and, of course, the obligatory psalm of praise. Let no one suggest that Roger Wright's three-tier first nights don't reflect the comprehensive, inclusive, spirit of the Proms. But in terms of musical satisfaction, does the fragmented form, with its interminable intervals, really add up? No. Best to focus on the parts rather than the sum of them.
Two of this writer's favourite Frenchmen – Chabrier and Poulenc – provided the best form of détente with our closest European relations. Chabrier's "Ode à la musique", a Prom premiere (better 120 years late than never), drenched us in sweet harmonies of a peculiarly French persuasion while the Labèque sisters, kittenish Katia and demure Marielle, attended to the deliciously subversive nature of Poulenc's Concerto in D for Two Pianos, romping between skittish music hall burlesque and twilit reverie with idiomatic aplomb.
Stephen Hough was the third pianist on hand, launching his season's assault on the three Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos from the rear, as it were. The torso of the unfinished 3rd Concerto brought his characteristic deftness of rhythm and a wonderful sense of "golden age" pianism, with the second subject of the piece relaxing into a beguiling range of rubatos in the span of only a handful of bars. Sound and phrasing were beautifully reconciled.
Elgar sat quite comfortably with Brahms and Bruckner in the evening's final segment, though Jiri Belohlavek initially presided over a bit of a scramble into the Vale of Andorra in the opening pages of Elgar's In the South overture. Lovely solo from the BBC Symphony's principal viola, Norbert Blume, in the central "Canto Popolare", but the tempo was dreamy to the point of dropping off.
Enter, though, the wonderful Alice Coote to stiffen our resolve and lull us into hopeful acceptance with her beautifully articulate and thought-through reading of Brahms' Alto Rhapsody. As ever, the words chimed so completely with her wide-ranging contralto that the exultant Hallelujahs of Bruckner's joyous setting of Psalm 150 which followed seem to spring directly from it.
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