Year: 2011

Proms 2011 – Orchestre Philharmonique: Les offrandes oubliées … Morning in Long Island

Messiaen
Les offrandes oubliées
Dusapin
Morning in Long Island (Concert No.1) [UK premiere]
Beethoven
Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C, Op.56

Frank Braley (piano), Renaud Capuçon (violin) & Gautier Capuçon (cello)

Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Myung-Whun Chung. Photograph: Riccardo MasacchioFor Pascal Dusapin, BBC Proms are proving to be like the proverbial buses – his first two performances at these concerts coming within ten days of each other. This Prom featured a first hearing in the UK for Morning in Long Island (2010), first in what promises to be a substantial Concert series (the composer’s prolific output often falls into such groupings) and inspired – albeit in an abstract sense – by Dusapin’s first encounter some years ago with the environs of that landmass just off America’s east coast. The outcome is a half-hour piece whose three continuous movements outline a ‘concerto for orchestra’ of great subtlety and resourcefulness.

Marked ‘Fragile’, the first movement is essentially an introduction in its setting out the translucent harmonic and enticing melodic bases through which Dusapin – a protégé of Xenakis as much as Messiaen – has evolved a highly distinctive idiom over three decades. Its overt abstraction is then tempered by fugitive activity from percussion in a brief interlude which leads into the central ‘Simplement’, the lengthy elaboration of ideas so far encountered and whose expressive remoteness is countered by increasingly imposing climaxes where the sizable orchestra – spurred on by solo horn, trumpet and trombone placed around the auditorium and central to the piece’s unfolding – conjures images of an elemental ferocity. From here the final movement, ‘Swinging’, imparts a tangible human presence through an increasingly intricate rhythmic interplay that rapidly draws in the whole orchestra on the way to a propulsive conclusion: nature and humanity brought into visceral accord.

The performance sounded as assured as would be imagined from an orchestra now established as among the finest in the French-speaking world, along with a conductor whose advocacy of new music is second to none. Certainly the Royal Albert Hall acoustic presented this complex yet evocative score in the best possible light. Now in his mid-50s, Dusapin has received only a cursory attention on this side of the channel (notwithstanding a fine account of his breakthrough piece Niobe at the Philharmonia’s Music of Today concerts some years ago), and it is to be hoped that more of his work – not least his operas – will soon find its way onto UK schedules.

Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées (1930) proved to be an admirable opener. The 22-year-old composer may still have been working through the influences of an earlier generation – Dukas, in particular, during the brief but aggressive central section – but the remote mystery of the initial section and, moreover, the calm ecstasy of the extended final one could already be by no other composer. Having set down more of Messiaen’s output than any other conductor, Myung-Whun Chung directed a performance that was faithful to the music’s textural and expressive extremes; such contrasts audibly working to the cohesiveness of the work as a whole.

Gautier & Renaud Capuçon. Photographs: Michael Tammaro & Mat HennekAfter the interval, Capuçon brothers Renaud and Gautier were joined by Frank Braley (who was replacing an indisposed Martha Argerich) in an incisive account of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (1804). Normally revived these days as a vehicle for ‘star’ soloists, the piece is heard to best advantage with musicians able to work as a chamber unit – which was (fortuitously) the case here. With a scaled-down Orchestre Philharmonique ideally complementing the trio, and Chung reminding of his skills as an accompanist, the performance captured the lazy energy of the long opening Allegro – in which Beethoven’s division of labour between the trio is a constant fascination – as much as the soulfulness of the brief central Largo then a ‘Rondo alla polacca’ that sees the work on to its good-humoured though, as the coda demonstrates, far from predicable close. Not the most obvious way to have rounded off this concert, perhaps, but a persuasive one all the same.

Proms 2011 – Mahan Esfahani plays J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on harpsichord

Bach
Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)


Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 18 July, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Mahan Esfahani. Photograph: Marco BorggreveProudly announced as a first for BBC Proms, Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital at Cadogan Hall, the first of eight Proms Chamber Music concerts on a Monday lunchtime, contained a work whose duration is often far longer than the time allotted here. If all repeats are taken, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations can last on average 70 minutes. In the event Esfahani, a former BBC New Generation Artist, clocked in at 48 minutes, eschewing most repeats.

Playing a double manual harpsichord loaned specially for the occasion by Trevor Pinnock, Esfahani chose as his manuscript the 1937 edition by Ralph Kirkpatrick. Throughout he gave a performance that was good to watch, his evident enjoyment of the music given extra expressive input either in the fast passages or when he wished to stress a particular line. Perhaps inevitably there were interpretative points to bear in mind. Some Variations stood out on account to Esfahani’s decision to take repeats, particularly in VII, where his turn of phrase with the witty, upward-pointing melodic figure was particularly adept. He also took repeats in II, IV and XIII. Towards the beginning of the set he also placed particular emphasis on the midpoints of each Variation, the arrival of a cadence often signposted with a notable holding back or sudden acceleration. This threatened to disrupt the flow of the music.

Much of Esfahani’s playing was admirable for its highlighting of contrapuntal lines, and he was also alive to the wit of the faster Variations – particularly in XIV and its almost-careless throwing around of the three-note figure. The plaintive nature of the slower sections was also highlighted, with IX nicely unhurried in this respect. The strangest music was heard in XXV, in which the use of dampeners on the upper manual (through the left hand) gave the melody and its accompaniment an oddly disjointed but unexpectedly emotional feel. This was all but destroyed – intentionally – by the flurry of notes that followed, Variation XXVI lighting the blue-touch paper.

Nor was Esfehani afraid to give the right-hand more room, a technique used to good effect in XIII, where the unusual harmonies were highlighted. Silence, too, was used as an expressive tool, becoming particularly important at the end of XV, where the gap left between the end of the high note and the low-register opening to XVI created its own profundity. These elements combined to make Esfahani’s performance interesting and often highly musical, with a use of ornamentation that was inventive and tasteful. Though the sense of occasion at the ‘Quodlibet’ was notable, it was unfortunate that Esfahani chose not to take repeats in the final statement of the ‘Aria’ (he had done so to launch the work) to give a greater sense of completion. Instead, as a postscript, Esfahani read a brief passage from the Epistles of Horace, written in 20 BC – a novel idea but a rather unnecessary addition.

Proms 2011 – Judith Bingham’s Everlasting Crown/organ recital by Stephen Farr

Alain
Litanies
Liszt
Prelude ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’ [arr. Winterberger]
Bach
Chorale Prelude ‘Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott’, BWV721
Judith Bingham
The Everlasting Crown [world premiere]

Stephen Farr (organ)


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stephen Farr. Photograph: KT BruceOrgan recitals are a regular feature at the BBC Proms, enabling this most impressive of instruments to unfurl its technical and expressive possibilities to the furthest reaches of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Well established among the younger generation, Stephen Farr here offered a diverse programme which played to his strengths.

Breezily prolific before his untimely demise at the outset of World War Two, Jehan Alain pursued an uninhibited take on matters spiritual, scintillatingly to the fore in Litanies (1937) – its jazzy interplay of registers and motifs an ideal entrée. Quite a contrast to Liszt’s Prelude (1859) on Bach’s chorale ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’, probably best-known today in its organ incarnation (arranged by Alexander Winterberger) and whose grief is heightened by a simmering anger such as has barely abated by the close. After which the unworldly musing of an original Chorale Prelude by J. S. Bach could only provide consolation: its hieratic juxtaposition of theme and accompaniment may be so singular in the composer’s output as to have made many commentators doubt its authenticity, but the aura that emanates from its so doing can only be described as Bachian in spirit if not thereby conception.

Royal Albert Hall organ. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThe programme was dominated by the premiere of Judith Bingham’s ambitious cycle The Everlasting Crown (2011). Inspired by a volume describing the provenance of a number of (in)famous precious stones, the work evokes eight of these (the last two interlinked in music as they are by association) over seven movements that deploy the full range available from an instrument of this scale. That said, opportunities for display are fairly outweighed by passages both inward and speculative – often brought together within the same movement – so that the whole sequence feels appreciably more intricate and involving than its overall conception might suggest. Certainly Farr had the measure of its diversity – culminating in a darkly impassioned evocation of ‘The Timur Ruby and the Koh-i-Noor’, which set the seal on this substantial and increasingly absorbing undertaking. This first outing will not be its last.

That the Bingham came in at slightly under its allotted duration meant Farr had time for an encore in the guise of further Alain. Alternately withdrawn and sinister, his Deuxième prélude profane (1934) presented this composer in a very different light, while making for an arrestingly understated close to a worthwhile concert.

Proms 2011 – Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Havergal Brian
Symphony No.1 in D minor (The Gothic)

Susan Gritton (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Peter Auty (tenor) & Alastair Miles (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Youth Chorus
Eltham College Boys’ Choir
Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs
Bach Choir
BBC National Chorus of Wales
Brighton Festival Chorus
Côr Caerdydd
Huddersfield Choral Society
London Symphony Chorus

David Goode (organ)

BBC Concert Orchestra
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Martyn Brabbins


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Martyn Brabbins conducts Brian's symphony The Gothic at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIt is fair to say that far more people know about Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony (1919-27) than will ever have heard it. Long mythical in its inaccessibility, it was finally brought to life by Bryan Fairfax in 1961. Among the five subsequent complete performances, Sir Adrian Boult directed the first ostensibly professional hearing in 1966 (preserved on Testament), followed by Trevor Stokes in 1978 and Ole Schmidt in 1980. There matters rested until last December, John Curro giving the “non-UK premiere” in Brisbane, and now Martyn Brabbins has introduced the work to the BBC Proms in an account which, if not definitive (could one ever be thus?), had its measure like none before it.

Much has been written on this work as a musical event with few if any equals. Yet it is vital to bear in mind that Brian, already an experienced composer when he began the piece, was reckless only in his conception – ‘problems’ that are encountered in performance being mainly logistical and occasionally technical though never arising from the musical content. All credit to Brabbins for overseeing so intensive a preparation (both regionally and at Alexandra Palace prior to the dress rehearsal), such that precious little was left to chance on the night itself. Anything that went wrong therefore stemmed from failings which were relative rather than intrinsic.

And this was not a performance that played it safe. Not only did it proceed straight through as intended, but Brabbins inserted brief pauses only after the first and before the last of its six movements – enabling the work to be appreciated as a cumulatively unfolding entity whose tonal evolution is as oblique yet as purposeful as its emotional progression. As a representation of the Gothic era in all of its diversity and contradiction, Brian was hardly averse to admitting a few formal ‘curve-balls’, though these only serve to open-out the expressive scope of a piece whose inclusivity can only be appreciated in the original sense of that much misused word.

Brian's symphony The Gothic performed at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouInsofar as timings are relevant, the performance was spot-on. In the first of the initial three purely orchestral movements, Brabbins, without under-emphasising the distinction between its incisive and languorous main themes (with eloquent playing from leader Lesley Hatfield in the latter), was at one with Brian in placing a premium on formal cohesion that was palpably secured during its later stages. Especially worthy was the simmering poise brought to this movement over its largely reflective reprise, thereby making the delayed return of its first theme the more visceral and the unleashing of its organ-capped coda the more resplendent. The Lento which follows is less a funeral march than a fantasia on funereal rhythms, something that Brabbins conveyed in a reading whose expressive eddying admitted of no false emotion. A quality that is applicable to the sombre tread of its outer sections as much as the brief yet unexpected timbral contrasts at its centre. Nor was the eventual peroration overly grandiloquent, for all that it might have been so given the organ’s much more audible presence than in previous accounts at the main theme’s heightened return. The coda featured horn-playing of melting purity and a bass clarinet transition the more arresting heard against a silent backdrop. From here the scherzo unfolded as the climactic entity it needs to be. Brabbins rightly kept the initial pages moving, not least the potent horn theme whose varied appearances are the movement’s formal backbone, so that the diverse alternations of mood and tempo during the first half generated the requisite momentum for the intuitive leaps to come. Whether in its initial explosions of power, xylophone-led gyrations that follow, or the martial climax with its breathtaking cadential resolution, the performance simply shone. The winding-down of intensity and serene close came as a benediction on what is, in itself, a symphonic entity with which to reckon.

Brian's symphony The Gothic performed at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouVarious commentators have tried and only partially succeeded in explaining the physiognomy of the Te Deum setting that constitutes the work’s second half. Outwardly the most conventional of the last three movements, the first of them is also the most difficult to make cohere. Brabbins largely succeeded in forging its schematic alternation of praise and supplication into a cumulative sequence – one duly prefaced by the deftest of choral invocations and most impulsive of brass fanfares, then concluded by a declaration necessarily provisional in its sentiment. The result was a fourth movement in which expressive tension was at the very least maintained. Along with the scherzo, the setting of ‘Judex crederis esse venturus’ that constitutes the fifth movement is the work’s ostensible highlight. Brabbins rightly had the choirs take time over the intricate initial a cappella, with Susan Gritton’s solos a marvel of limpid clarity. The entry of the offstage brass and percussion, not quite quadraphonic in placing, yet made their baleful presence felt across the respectively granitic and tensile orchestral interludes into which the massed voices briefly intervene before propelling this most unequivocal of movements to its seismic close – thunder machine and bird-scares to the fore in what was a veritable mêlée.

Brian making the sixth movement the longest and the most diverse was a gamble that paid off handsomely in this performance. Peter Auty coped gainfully with his high-lying aria, while Alastair Miles gave a persuasive account of his more introspective solo. The choruses had the measure of music ranging from the densest tuttis to plainchant-like austerity (intonation aided, as earlier, by discreet organ underpinning). The nonchalant then celebratory sequence framed by jazzy clarinet march-pasts was unerringly handled, though Brabbins might have kept the frenzied double-peroration for massed brass and drums nearer the tempo of the choral double fugue (given with exquisite pathos), allowing their naked violence its head even more fully before a fragmented orchestral postlude. That said, the closing ‘Non confundar in aeternam’ was flawlessly rendered – its calm imploration imbued with a speech-like understatement which set the preceding 105 minutes in the most meaningful relief.

Otherwise, the sterling contributions of Christine Rice – denied a solo – to the vocal quartet, and David Goode in the wide-ranging organ part, must be mentioned. Orchestral failings were gratifyingly few, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra evincing unanimity as if they collaborated on a regular basis. Above all this was Brabbins’s performance, and the discreet but intent control exerted over the vast numbers (no voice or instrument spared) left no doubt he believed in the music from the inside and had absorbed it thus. That the capacity audience betrayed few signs of its presence says much for this conviction. Hopefully it will not be another thirty-one years before Gothic Symphony is heard in this venue again (previously Ole Schmidt). Such a work is, almost by definition, an occasional piece – albeit one that stands to offer much by being widely known and thought on. As flawed masterpieces go, no other risks so much in staking out the listener’s awareness of its greatness.

Proms 2011 – Rossini’s William Tell [Michele Pertusi, John Osborn, Antonio Pappano]

Rossini
Guillaume Tell – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Etienne de Jouy & Hippolyte Louis-Florent Bis, with additions by Armand Marrast & Adolphe Crémieux, based on the play by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller [concert performance; sung in French]

William Tell – Michele Pertusi
Arnold Melchthal – John Osborn
Walter Furst – Matthew Rose
Melchthal – Frédéric Caton
Jemmy – Elena Xanthoudakis
Gesler – Nicolas Courjal
Rodolphe – Carlo Bosi
Ruodi – Celso Albelo
Leuthold – Mark Stone
Mathilde – Malyn Byström
Hedwige – Patricia Bardon
Huntsman – Davide Malvestio

Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Antonio Pappano


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 16 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Antonio Pappano conducts Rossini’s William Tell at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWilliam Tell was the last of Rossini’s thirty-nine operas, written at the age of 37. It marked a distinctive break from his former operatic style. Written to a French libretto (later adapted into Rossini’s native Italian), William Tell was first staged in August 1829 in Paris. It was here given its first complete BBC Proms performance. Sure, the work was conceived for Paris where operatic tastes were different from Rossini’s Italian norm, but in terms of scale and method it is a piece hard to categorise. Despite living for another thirty-eight years, Rossini never again entered the operatic arena. The work itself shows remarkable anticipation of the works of Verdi, but there are also hints of Meyerbeer as well as of the mature outpourings of Bellini, Donizetti and Mercadante.

“Operatic taste” is an important aspect though, and today’s audiences confronted by this epic work can, after regular exposure to the more theatrically immediate works of Verdi, find the drama rather slow to ignite and the final resolution almost dutiful. Owing to the expansive rustic scene-setting and exposition of the political situation that Tell and his Swiss compatriots find themselves enmeshed in, the first Act is a slow burn. Indeed, it is only in the central acts that the political and romantic drama ignites, and even then the plot sometimes lacks immediacy. The character of Arnold takes a long time to jolt into revolutionary action following the death of his father, and whilst he has a musically sizzling conversion in the final Act we then only see him after his victory in a perfunctory episode before the rhapsodic ending. Likewise Tell himself has little opportunity to express and build his character in terms of aria and ensemble – this is a surprisingly declamatory role with few plum passages. Even the romantic female lead, Mathilde, can seem rather passive until her intervention in Act Three to save Tell’s innocent son Jemmy from execution. Her situation at the end of the work is hardly resolved. Does this lack of dramatic cohesion explain the complete opera’s comparative neglect, despite the Prom programme’s assertion that it is a “staple of the opera house”? Yet Royal Opera only staged the work once in the last century, in 1990, the previous production being in 1889! Its disregard is also perhaps due to the work making considerable demands on the performers as well as directors and designers. The in-Italian version has hardly fared any better.

Antonio Pappano conducts Rossini’s William Tell at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAt this Proms performance the musical demands could be assessed on their own terms in this superb presentation by the Rome-based Academy of Santa Cecilia under the authoritative and innate leadership of Antonio Pappano to demonstrate how with the right forces the difficulties can be overcome – dazzlingly. From its five-cello opening the famously familiar Overture courted excitement, the players then relishing Rossini’s striking evocations of nature in Act One. There was some wonderful horn-playing and the Royal Albert Hall’s spatial possibilities were fully utilised. The dance-episodes that occur throughout the score, so necessary for Parisian tastes at the time, were beautifully sprung and rarely threatened to outstay their welcome. Above all, Rossini’s inventively experimental orchestral writing was revealed by Pappano and his musicians in a reading of pace, dynamic variety and lucid textures.

Michele Pertusi (William Tell) & John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal), with the Orchestra & Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano at BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThe cast, similar to that on Pappano’s recently released EMI recording from Saint Cecilia – a worthy companion to the classic Lamberto Gardelli recording, also EMI, that boasts Caballé, Gedda and Bacquier – was also amazingly assured. From Celso Albelo’s mellifluous vocalisation of the weak fisherman Ruodi’s lyrical harp-accompanied song the singing just got better and better. In the title role Michele Pertusi (it’s Gerald Finley on the recording) smouldered away very effectively – his voice having the right bite and grit for this visionary character and also the moment to display lyricism and tenderness in ‘Sois immobile’ with its cello opening and unsettled major/minor tonality. Malin Byström is the possessor of a voice of allure and purity with reserves of power allied to technical dexterity. ‘Sombre forêt’ showed her ability to spin out long lines expressively, and she also kept her recitative-like passages interesting. The Act Two duet with John Osborn’s Arnold was terrific; the most obviously Italianate moment of the score. Osborn was in superb form in perhaps the hardest role – he has to be an ardent if guilty lover, a remorseful son, and a reluctant then-fiery revolutionary rabble-rouser. The vocal demands are immense. Osborn met them with unfailing lyricism in the first two acts, and then the fiendish ‘Asile héréditaire’ with its thrilling cabaletta ending – surely an episode Verdi had in mind when writing certain scenes for the tenor in Il trovatore – was delivered with a panache that electrified the audience.

Antonio Pappano conducts Rossini’s William Tell at the BBC Proms 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouIn the crucial if minor female roles the bright-voiced Elena Xanthoudakis and the luscious tones of Patricia Bardon were heard to great effect. Likewise Matthew Rose and Mark Stone made the most of their brief moments. There were a good pair of ‘baddies’ too – Nicolas Courjal’s incisive, sappy and charismatic baritone making a great character out of the sadistic Gessler. The chorus-writing is not Rossini at his best in terms of variety, but it was brought off with freshness and idiomatic clarity.

Proms 2011 First Night [Benjamin Grosvenor, Judith Weir, Glagolitic Mass & Jiří Bělohlávek]

Judith Weir
Stars, Night, Music and Light [BBC commission: world premiere]
Brahms
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80 [arr. Malcolm Sargent]
Liszt
Piano Concerto No.2 in A
Janáček
Glagolitic Mass [September 1927 version, edited Jiří Zahrádka & Leoš Faltus]

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Hibla Gerzmava (soprano), Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano), Stefan Vinke (tenor) & Jan Martiník (bass)

BBC Singers & BBC Symphony Chorus

David Goode (organ)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 July, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus at the First Night of the BBC Proms, as the world’s greatest music festival opened on Friday 15 July 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouA Roger Wrightian sense of humour paired Brahms and Liszt together – cheers guys – to help open BBC Proms 2011. Greater inebriation was needed in Academic Festival Overture, a soft-grained account with overloud trumpets and thin-sounding violins, Jiří Bělohlávek dotting Is and crossing Ts but missing the swing, sparkle – and, yes, fun – this piece can yield. Decent enough, but then arrived the reason for the “arr. Malcolm Sargent” tag – his addition of a chorus for the words of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, its tune normally happily rounding-off this thank-you work to Breslau University in resplendent orchestration. Still, with no wish to party-poop, let’s just say that Brahms knew best and that Sargent’s appendage is pointless. Moving on…

Benjamin Grosvenor becomes the youngest soloist to appear at the First Night of the Proms, performing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWe then welcomed Benjamin Grosvenor, who turned 19 just a week before this concert, at which he became the youngest-ever Proms First Night soloist. He gave Liszt 2 a terrific outing. From the woodwinds’ beguiling opening invitation, responded to with much poetry by Grosvenor, through to the high kicks of the grandstand coda, there was a strong partnership between pianist and orchestra, Bělohlávek brokering a detailed and obliging accompaniment. He and Grosvenor appreciated Liszt’s cyclical procedures and bound them tautly and expansively into an inevitable whole. Graham Bradshaw’s cello solo was particularly lovely and Grosvenor himself delighted with his sensitivity – his quiet playing magically intimate, the Royal Albert Hall recoiling to the size of Wigmore Hall – the pianist never fazed by the occasion or the space he was playing into. Grosvenor does virtuosity, too, without banging loudly, indulgence, exaggeration or self-aggrandisement. Indeed it was his youthful maturity underpinned by a happy marriage of innate musicianship and secure technique that made Liszt’s bravura, and nocturnal reverie, so rewarding on this occasion. As an encore, Grosvenor offered a Brahms Hungarian Dance as arranged by Cziffra, pure showmanship on the latter’s part if preserving Brahms’s shape and contours, Grosvenor bringing an easeful prestidigitation that never crossed the line into empty display.

Otherwise it was Janáček all the way, including from Judith Weir, whose three-and-a-bit-minute BBC commission, a companion to Glagolitic Mass in terms of scoring (excepting what Weir curiously referred to as “the most inaudible” instruments, such as harps and celesta) and which made for a welcome opening in terms of newness, its slightly gnarled celebration cued by three sets of timpani and brass, the choral lines (settings from George Herbert’s Man) more than glancing to Walton and disturbed by jagged interjections. The organ drowned out the brass on the final chord. In context Stars, Night, Music and Light worked well enough, but this is a very occasional piece.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek at the First Night of the BBC Proms, which opened on Friday 15 July 2011. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouJanáček’s so-original – for once “unique” can be justifiably used – Glagolitic Mass (utilising Old Slavonic/Cyrillic texts) was given in the very precisely dated version that the composer went on to alter before the first performance that took place a few months later. The earlier manuscript is more of a risk-taker and gives an even stronger profile to this cosmic creation. Bělohlávek made no concessions to its cragginess, the performers savouring the music’s savage and starlit contrasts and those awkward if irresistible turns of phrase which pulsate and chant so intensely. John Chimes played a blinder as lead timpanist, David Goode opened out the throttle of the Albert Hall organ for the instrument’s zany Doctor Phibes-like contributions, Hibla Gerzmava (standing where the mezzo should have been) and Stefan Vinke dealt fearlessly with Janáček’s challenges – she ecstatically, he heroically (the other two solo singers have negligible roles) – and the haunting off-stage appearance of three clarinets (jettisoned by Janáček before the public heard his smoother re-working) was perfectly delivered from on-high, the RAH once again demonstrably ‘shrinking’. Choral singing was exceptionally well-prepared and the BBCSO relished Janáček’s biting instrumentation while dropping the odd stitch.

This was an intoxicating performance of magnetic and hypnotic music that embraces passionate penitence and Pagan splendour. We sweltered through it, and survived – emerging fighting-fit for the remaining 89 concerts!

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