Proms: BBC SO / Jiri Belohlavek The Rustavi Choir Royal Albert Hall / BBC R3

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The Independent Culture
Friday night at the Royal Albert Hall suggested something of a musical world tour, initially in the company of Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then with the all-Georgian, all-male Rustavi Choir directed by Anzor Erkomaishvili. The humid evening air hung as heavily as hot towels, but when the Rustavis broke into their opening "work song", spirits soared and the atmosphere freshened in an instant. There were 17 songs from various regions of Georgia plus two encores, ranging in tone from the sacred to the profane and in style from a hushed lullaby, through hypnotic dance songs, a historical narrative, an Eastertide carol, drinking songs, a horseriding song and a couple of instrumental solos featuring two lutes and a lightning-fingered flautist. The dozen-or-so singers appeared in handsome attire (purple tunics with silver braid) and exhibited both impressive vocal stamina and formidable executive discipline. Anyone hooked on early choral music (by, say, Perotin) will have responded to the music's striking brand of polyphony, while certain harmonic clashes - ie the "seconds, sevenths and ninths" that Dr Gerard McBurney referred to in the excellent programme booklet - sounded a decidedly modern note.

Earlier in the evening, Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony treated us to a vigorous account of Bartok's rarely heard tone-poem Kossuth, a Straussian tour de force that charts the heroic exploits of Lajos Kossuth against the Austrians in 1848-9. Zarathustra is much in evidence, Dvorak too; and although hardly a masterpiece on the level of, say, Ein Heldenleben (Bartok's obvious point of reference), Kossuth has plenty to commend it - not least a stirring battle scene where the hero crosses musical swords with the Austrians and their imperial anthem. Next came a piquantly scored sequence of folk-song orchestrations by Luciano Berio, 11 in all from as far afield as America, Armenia, France, Sicily, Italy, Sardinia, Azerbaijan and the Auvergne (two songs that Canteloube also set in his Chants d'Auvergne). Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was the vivacious and personable soloist (she made a great impact with the Azerbaijan finale), Belohlavek traced plenty of telling instrumental detail and the audience was evidently delighted. The concert ended with a clear-headed, fairly sensitive account of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. Belohlavek indulged one or two rhetorical ritardandi in the opening Allegro con brio; he made tender poetry of the second movement's coda, while in the third movement he had the violins dip to a seductive piano. The finale was distinguished by taut rhythms and wildly trilling horns but although the coda had plenty of gusto, I would have welcomed a tad more reverie in the "loving farewell" that preceded it. Still, the performance hit target and the promenaders responded true to form - though with a second concert near to hand, there was no time for an encore. A shame, really, because Belohlavek is a dab hand at Dvorak miniatures.

Friday's Prom is repeated Tuesday 2pm, BBC Radio 3

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