Prom 1: BBC SO/Belohlávek, Royal Albert Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's no such thing as slipping quietly into the post of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. New appointees arrive with all the circumstance, if not the pomp, that the First Night of the Proms affords. Jirí Belohlávek managed to make it personal, too. The new season's birthday boys - Mozart and Shostakovich - were there, of course, but so too were Smetana and Dvorák flying the flag for his Czech homeland. St George would have to wait.

Dvorák arrived in the New World to take up his post as director of New York's National Conservatory of Music in 1892 - three years before the first Prom. His festive Te Deum (a kind of choral precursor to Janacek's Sinfonietta) made quite a splash on that occasion, dancing strings and timpani sounding like they might break into a furiant at any moment. And so it was again under Belohlávek: light, open, airy textures, with the BBC Symphony Chorus encouraged to point and articulate, not merely to "sell". Belohlávek is not that kind of conductor - he's more inclined to gift a work than sell it. It wasn't the splashy festivity of this performance that one remembered but rather the moments of reflection, the homesick moments, if you like, with Dvorák's violins spiriting us back to Bohemia in sweet, grateful descants. The soprano Barbara Frittoli provided a few of those herself, lacking only that last degree of power as the solo voice goes spinning into orbit at the close.

Earlier, she was exemplary in two highly contrasted arias from Mozart's catalogue of wronged women. As Countess Almaviva from The Marriage of Figaro, she infused "Porgi amor" with the calmness of resignation, her beautiful, even-tempered legato exquisitely poised; a woman of breeding, indeed. Donna Elvira's "Mi tradi" (from Don Giovanni) brought controlled anxiety, with Frittoli not snatching at the coloratura but tempering the scorn with the ache of a woman still madly in love.

The season will bring edgier, more challenging Shostakovich than Belohlávek's immaculate, but under-characterised and underwhelming, account of the Fifth Symphony. The quality of the playing certainly augured well for his tenure but this was a reading constrained by bar lines, a reading where the quality of the notes felt like a higher priority than the reasons for them being there.

Comments