BBC Henry Wood Proms – the first night 2023 – Sibelius, Frolyak, Grieg and Britten

Let There be light
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16
Sibelius Snöfrid
Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34

Paul Lewis (piano)
Lesley Manville (narrator)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Singers
Dalia Stasevska

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 14 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Dalia Stasevska directed this interestingly programmed first night of the 2023 promenade concert season. She certainly deserved the opportunity – she was obliged to conduct the 2020 last night to an empty hall (due to Covid-19) and had expected to conduct the cancelled 2022 last night (due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II).

Finlandia was an ideal opening item for 2023.  Composed in 1899 and regarded as an anthem against oppression it strikes a particular chord with audiences in today’s troubled times. Here, performed in its choral version with its patriotic words, Stasevska, together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, delivered the orchestral sections with the utmost power.   

Boldana Frolyak’s ‘Let there be light’ – a BBC commission receiving its world première – was a suitable item to follow Finlandia. Frolyak is a Ukrainian composer and ‘Let there be light’, reflecting emergence from oppression, must certainly have appealed to Dalia Stasevska who, though of Finnish nationality, was born in Ukraine.  This serious tone poem opens darkly and features imaginatively-scored episodes, some of them light and remote, others richly and fully scored.  Progress towards expected optimism is gradual – the only hint of it is at the start of the soft, mysterious coda – but it was not to be, and the music dies away quietly with spaced fragments from various instruments.  It seems that ‘Let there be light’ poses an unanswered question.

To end the first half of tonight’s prom, it was back to standard concert repertoire with Paul Lewis’s sympathetic interpretation of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. His considerable flexibility within a measured basic tempo made interesting listening, especially as Lewis is noted for his classically shaped renderings of earlier 19th century music, such as the Beethoven sonatas. The first movement cadenza was all the more dramatic because of this free approach – Lewis’s stressed staccato moments leading to a noble coda.  Excellent so far however applause between movements disturbed this performance. An unusually broad but extremely beautiful performance of the second movement followed and here mention must be made of the superb woodwind playing which enunciated the counter melody.  A powerful finale, virtuosic yet flexible, ended the concerto with grandeur.

Sibelius’s Snöfrid for narrator, mixed choir and orchestra was composed only one year after Finlandia and is a suitable companion since, in its way, it seeks freedom albeit mostly from threatening mythical Scandinavian creatures.  The human side is portrayed by the female narrator who is looking for a champion to take sword in hand to fight for freedom.  This is a powerful tone poem with extensive choral parts. The lightly scored central section incorporates the entire text, superbly and with absolute clarity here narrated by Lesley Manville.  Tonight. the extensive choral parts were sung in the original Swedish; however the narration was in an English translation.

The concert ended with Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ – often a favourite item performed at the Last Night. This cleverly written piece, designed to show off every instrument in the orchestra, on this occasion confirmed the brilliance of each member of the superb BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Several highlights could be mentioned, though of particular note were the dazzling trumpets in their fiendishly difficult variation and the spectacular playing of the percussion – much applause followed as individually each section of the orchestra was brought to its feet.

This was an impressive start to the season with the resident orchestra playing at its very best.

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