First Night of the Proms 2021 – Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music; Poulenc’s Organ Concerto; James MacMillan’s When Soft Voices Die; Sibelius’s Second Symphony

Vaughan Williams
Serenade to Music
Concerto for organ, timpani and strings
When Soft Voices Die [BBC co-commission with Help Musicians – world premiere]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Allan Clayton (tenor), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)

Daniel Hyde (Royal Albert Hall organ)

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Dalia Stasevska

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 30 July, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

And they’re off! After the trimmed-down and audience-less 2020 season, it is absolutely glorious that there is a six-week BBC Proms season, with a physically present audience, at the Royal Albert Hall (in its 150th year) and Cadogan Hall. There was a bit of faff to gain entrance, what with the fumbling for the right Covid documentation, but it was all done with good-humour; everyone here to support this 127th season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.

Completely apposite it was to open with Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, which was written for Proms founder-conductor. With words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, we are invited to “sit and let the sound of music creep into our ears”. The music emerged seductively, with Elizabeth Llewellyn’s entreaties particularly affecting. The 17-strong and socially-distanced BBC Singers, high above the orchestra, gave great projection, perhaps more so than if they were sitting as a smaller grouping. A fabulously calm welcome-back.

Contrasting with the Vaughan Williams: the opening of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. It was more organ than orchestra; for large parts the latter was inaudible when with the organ. Daniel Hyde certainly put this great instrument through its paces, carving out the sound and producing some quite devilish playing.

A new piece from Sir James MacMillan came after the interval, using the same four soloists and orchestra as for the Vaughan Williams, and is about music coming back after a enforced absence. It sets two poems by Shelley. An awakening indeed, the opening conjured Wagner’s opening of Das Rheingold, and elsewhere this is a starry orchestration, heavenly starry. Quite fantastic, albeit restrained throughout. As before, Llewellyn shone brightly.

A quite thrilling performance of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Until now Dalia Stasevska had conducted as an equal, whether it was with organist or singers. Here she led, driving the music’s pulsing rhythms and keeping matters controlled. The Symphony benefited from this held-back approach, it gave it tension, and was edge-of-the-seat stuff. Such moments as the third-to-fourth movement transition were awesome. Overall, it was a glorious account, generously paced, breathing and pulsing: a fine way to get this season of Proms underway.

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