The First Night of the Proms

Overture: Portsmouth Point
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Paul Watkins (cello)

Maria Haan (soprano)
Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
René Pape (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus
Philharmonia Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the First Night of the 2006 Proms. ©Chris ChristodoulouAnother year, another Proms season. “Its déjà-vu all over again”, as Yogi Berra, the baseball player, famously said. The first concert of the BBC’s 80th Proms season got off to an auspicious start with this blockbuster programme executed in fine style. It is surely an excellent idea to turn tradition on its head and launch the season with Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ rather than holding it back to the close. Could there be any more appropriate or celebratory beginning than the “Ode to Joy”? (There’s a further Beethoven 9 on 30 August conducted by Mariss Jansons.)

The juxtaposition of Walton’s Portsmouth Point (1924-5), his first published work, and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, his last major orchestral work (1919), was instructive. Only six years separate the two works but they inhabit quite different worlds, the Elgar full of an understated valedictory regret, the Walton brimful of a breezy ‘Jazz Age’ confidence. Portsmouth Point supposedly portrays the rowdy, bustling, alcohol-lubricated life of an 18th-century quayside, although Walton claimed to have had the main idea whilst travelling on the upper deck of a Number 22 London bus! For all his musical virtues Jiří Bělohlávek does not spring to mind as the most natural guide to Walton’s crackling energy, but he made the best possible fist of it, even if its Stravinsky-inspired syncopation had more than a touch of Martinů in Jazz mode.

The Elgar, by contrast, elicited a wholly sympathetic response from soloist and orchestra alike. Paul Watkins, a former principal cellist of the BBCSO, is now increasingly well-known as a conductor; Elgar’s late thoughts found him wholly at one with the music’s deeply introspective musings but lacking the projection to do full justice to the grandly rhetorical moments (such as the work’s epilogue which was lacking in intensity). However, there were compensations, especially in the exquisitely withdrawn lead-in to the scherzo whose orchestral accompaniment enjoyed utmost precision and the lightest of touches – this was “Closely Observed Elgar” by Bělohlávek – and also by a slow movement whose exceptionally restrained dynamics and fragile delicacy allowed orchestral voices all-too-frequently obscured to be heard.

The Beethoven grew in stature with each successive movement. Initially there was some slightly rough and ready woodwind tuning. However, what was never in doubt, even from the outset, was the rightness and security of Bělohlávek’s overall conception. There was no fussing around with excessive ritardandos nor any break in the steady forward momentum; by the time we had reached the first movement’s central climax it had worked up a fine head of steam, aided by some very present yet subtle timpani-playing and by David Pyatt’s notably secure first horn. The scherzo was taken steadily rather than headlong and distinguished by a manifest care over dynamics, allowing dotted rhythms often-obscured to emerge with pristine clarity; however, for all their musical virtues, neither this nor the preceding movement had been earth-shattering.

Both subsequent movements moved up a gear and revealed Bělohlávek as an unobtrusive master of his craft. The slow movement’s opening exchanges between strings and wind, Adagio molto cantabile, were perfectly dovetailed whilst the interpretative problems posed by the alternating Andante moderato might as well not have existed so seamlessly did each succeeding section elide into the next. Like Samuel Palmer nature paintings, this was music-making of a teeming inner life – all-too-often this movement comes across as an extended solo for the first violins whereas here, thanks to astute balancing, the ear was constantly drawn elsewhere to the wealth of inner detail. Momentum was maintained even at danger points such as that strange exploratory passage at the return of the Adagio’s opening whose horn solo had an almost improvisatory freedom.

René Pape. ©Jeanne Susplugas Once past the opening recitatives – which lacked something in eruptive vehemence – the finale was everything one could have hoped for. Led by the imposing bass René Pape, the solo quartet was impressive; Maria Haan and Patricia Bardon blended well, and only Paul Groves lacked something of the requisite heldentenor quality in his solo. The large, combined, choir was something to behold both aurally and visually and brought an explosion of joy. Bělohlávek is an excellent choral conductor (a gift not given all orchestral conductors), but, even rarer in this movement, he has the ability precisely to locate and give full value to those brief moments of stillness without impeding the work’s overwhelming momentum – so when the final Prestissimo was reached there was a splendid affirmative blaze rather than the usual mad scamper to the finishing line.

Lastly a fervent plea on a matter of housekeeping, that of allowing the audience to take drinking vessels into the auditorium. The final pregnant pause of the ‘Choral’ was disfigured by the sound of a falling glass. Throughout the work there had been similar lesser incidents. The Royal Albert Hall staff, normally stringent, made no effort whatsoever to prevent people bringing back glasses after the interval. Both to prevent noise, and to avoid the possibility of injury, patrons should surely be restricted in this matter.

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