BBC Symphony Orchestra/Slatkin, Royal Albert Hall, London

From Russia with Lang Lang
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The Independent Culture

All sorts of people go to the Proms who don't go to other concerts. Even the Queen will be showing up at the end of this month. But the first night - unlike the last - has always been a more serious affair. Last Friday the programme was musically on the thin side.

As a starter, Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" of 1954 might have passed muster to mark the 37th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, but its breeziness and its would-be rousing strings ring hollow, as did Leonard Slatkin's clichéd gestures on the rostrum.

The real excitement was to follow in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, with the Chinese-born prodigy Lang Lang wearing a traditional Chinese satin shirt and white trousers. Having just graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he brims with a childlike delight in his own technical prowess, and released barrages of double octaves in the first movement that were faster than any I've heard - and as clean. If Lang was tempted to let his capacity for bravura get the better of his musical judgement, he did so less often than he has in the past, until the later part of the cadenza in the same movement, which was too fast for the average brain to register.

To the lullaby-like delicacy of the slow middle movement he brought tenderness and real affection, even if he pushed the contrasting scherzo section so hard that it lost a sense of buoyancy. But why was the return to the lullaby much slower than it had originally been?

The Royal Albert Hall has a funny trick of magnifying certain instruments unexpectedly - never the strings, but very often the woodwind. This was unfortunate, because the BBC Symphony Orchestra's players seemed to be having a bad night, and made some ugly sounds in the finale. Was Slatkin deliberately highlighting arabesques you don't normally hear? If so, the results surely taught him not to try it again.

Lang Lang, meanwhile, ducked and darted like a demented salmon, flicking accents selectively to startling effect, and making a sally of thunderous double octaves and rapid chords alternating between the hands, which brought the finale to a thrilling conclusion. This is Tchaikovsky at his crudest, so subtlety was not exactly called for.

The Proms always mix the familiar with the novel or the neglected. One of this year's themes is the music of Sergei Prokofiev, who died 50 years ago. His music for Eisenstein's film Ivan the Terrible, completed in 1945 and later re- ordered as a concert oratorio by Abram Stasevich, the conductor of the original soundtrack, filled the concert's second half. Over an hour long, it wasn't so much the music that wore thin as Edward Kemp's English narration, delivered by Simon Russell Beale in a measured, orotund manner that conveyed little sense of engagement and none of the appropriate terror. He was particularly feeble when given Ivan's own words, and one longed for him to sit down, shut up and let the music paint the picture.

Which it does, with a sense of dignified austerity and a considerable ear for striking orchestral sonorities. You can hardly tell how some effects are achieved without a score, though a weird, high-pitched oboe solo over quiet string tremolos and a richly sombre polyphony of cellos and double basses are obvious enough.

It's so rare to hear this music - even with the film - that one's attention was just about held. But I kept asking myself why it wasn't as thrilling as it should have been. The answer was that the playing lacked the do-or-die attack of the best Russian bands, while the combined BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC National Chorus of Wales sounded all too bland. The bass-baritone James Rutherford contributed one spirited solo. But the Russian mezzo-soprano soloist Irina Tchistyakova, who had a much more extensive part, seemed distinctly comatose.

The BBC Proms continue daily to 13 September (020-7589 8212). Every Prom is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and