First Night of the Proms: BBC SO / Slatkin, Royal Albert Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

First Night of the Proms, and all is in place: Albert's arena, awash with packed Prommers, chanting pitter-patter; circle and loggias brimming to the gills; acoustic saucers like festive blue bubbles, ribaldly rising roofward.

First Night of the Proms, and all is in place: Albert's arena, awash with packed Prommers, chanting pitter-patter; circle and loggias brimming to the gills; acoustic saucers like festive blue bubbles, ribaldly rising roofward.

Queen Victoria, who flung wide the doors in March 1871, described her Consort's 79-yard-wide hall as "like the British constitution". Nicholas Kenyon's 2004 Proms look pretty sturdy, too. Operas, odes and orchestral oddments pepper this deliciously mongrel series: 74 delicacies to waft down Kensington Gore and addle the BBC airwaves until 11 September.

TV was there, too, its big boom sweeping over our heads. This was an evening of big booms; £1.7m on, the revamped organ snorts a treat, and Martin Neary's benign, non-blistering Bach furnished an affable beginning.

Next, the weird and wonderful timbres of Sir Henry Wood's D minor fugal fricassee - not butch massed strings like Stokowski's, but tinkling like some bizarre Mozartian musical clock, aswirl with impeccable unison woodwind, then subterranean as Alberich, fiery as Fafner, purring like Parsifal.

Poor old Elgar. You don't need David Pownall's galvanising radio play Elgar's Third or Alec McCowen frumping onstage in the RSC's Elgar's Rondo to realise the chap could be downright gloomy as well as a genial cove who liked chemistry experiments. The Music Makers (1912) isn't Elgar's sunniest: it's his mope piece - an unremitting splurge of pointed quotations whining "nobody loves me any more".

Yet once Slatkin's fellow-American Lorraine Hunt Lieberson - surely the ultimate Gerontius Angel - joined in, the magic ballooned. Who could not be moved by the Nimrod allusions, so pertinent with Jaeger's death and Elgar's confidence waning? Or not be disarmed by the poignant plod of his First Symphony?

It was the blatantly autobiographical Angel ("On one man's soul it hath broken") and those falling chromatics echoing Gerontius's death that proved most disarming. The loving way Slatkin ushered in Lieberson's tragic "A singer who sings no more" and the final chorus retrospective, on oh-so-nearly-inaudible strings - Elgar closes the door on a dying double-bass whisper - this was the stuff of greatness.

And then, from this gamely Anglophile American conductor, Holst's astral The Planets. Composed by 1917 (the terrifyingly prophetic "Mars" in 1914, unbelievably), here was a ploy to knock spots off Paris: an English Nocturnes, Petrushka, Firebird. Tenor tuba and all, the suite is an orchestrator's encyclopedia: no wonder it caught on like hot cakes.

Albert's acoustic seems perfect for planetary revolution: that momentary retention, then sudden fade and cut-out. BBC SO leader Michael Davis's lovely, plangent wide vibrato; quadruple woodwind ripples; silvery slivers of Rimsky/Stravinsky; above all, Slatkin's superbly sustained spectral "Saturn" - you kept expecting Arkel or Titurel to show up - wreathed, sheathed in mystery, till the harp and bell sunbursts. Magisterial management; sensational music.

To 11 September; available to hear online until Friday (020-7589 8212; www.bbc.co.uk/proms)

Comments