The First Night Of The Proms

Le nozze di Figaro, K492 – Overture; Porgi amor
Don Giovanni, K527 – In quali eccesso, O numi … Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata
Má vlast – Vltava
Te Deum, Op.103
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Barbara Frittoli (soprano)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The intention to mark Mozart’s 250th-anniversary and Shostakovich’s centenary throughout this year’s Proms season was made explicit in this opening concert. Whether or not some of Mozart’s most popular operatic excerpts and Shostakovich’s most widely-played symphony need such exposure is perhaps a matter of debate. Sandwiched between these were works by Czech composers, obviously included to mark Jiří Bělohlávek’s becoming, with this concert, the next Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

A reduced string section was deployed for the Mozart and whilst the tempo was finely judged for the ‘Figaro’ overture (more properly the opera’s Sinfonia), one couldn’t altogether escape the feeling that this music was, to a degree, ‘lost’ in the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall. Nevertheless, this performance bubbled with high spirits and detail and dynamic contrasts were well attended to – as indeed they were throughout this somewhat disparate programme.

Barbara Frittoli captured the poignancy of the Countess’s ‘Porgi amor’, partnered by an attentive and expressive accompaniment. In Donna Elvira’s recitative and aria from “Don Giovanni” (replacing, without explanation, the excerpt from “Idomeneo” listed in the Proms brochure), the words in the former were superbly articulated, whilst the expressiveness of the latter was touching, and vocal hurdles easily negotiated.

The second of Smetana’s six symphonic poems that make up the collection Má vlast must be a piece which Bělohlávek has conducted many times. But there was no hint of routine in this performance; on the contrary, it was notable for its freshness and vitality. Some infelicities in the awkward opening section for the woodwinds did not detract from the effectiveness of the whole, the various episodes being distinctly characterised. The string playing was fine and the really quiet brass-playing impressive.

The opening of Dvořák’s “Te Deum” might suggest Bohemian village merry-making rather than a paean of praise to Almighty God, but the ebullience of Dvořák’s invention here and elsewhere was well conveyed, with the BBC Symphony Chorus making a most hearty contribution.

Dvořák divided the text into four movements, thus creating a symphonic design, though, surprisingly, he often passes by opportunities for specific illumination of the words. Barbara Frittoli’s radiant singing was once again affecting, and Sir John Tomlinson’s oracular pronouncements were tremendously powerful. Occasionally, one felt the need for a little more drive from the conducting and weight from the orchestral accompaniment, but Dvořák’s sometimes rather odd setting of the “Te Deum” was, overall, given a performance of some conviction.

Shostakovich undoubtedly realised that his Fifth Symphony would have to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the Soviet authorities, following official condemnation of his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and one can imagine the composer’s relief when its first performance in January 1938 was a success with both the public and Stalin’s regime.

But it remains an ambiguous piece; is the composer writing what the ‘Party’ wanted to hear, or is there some kind of subversive subtext – perhaps most revealingly at the symphony’s close with its emphatic re-iterations of D major after so much music in the minor key? We can probably never know.

In any event, Jiří Bělohlávek’s reading felt far too ‘comfortable’. The opening string gestures lacked bite and the underlying tension in the subsequent high violin melody and its insistent accompaniment was absent. Even with the arrival of heavy artillery, in the form of weighty brass, there was insufficient menace or a feeling of danger. The tempo for this movement was relatively swift, but the gradual accelerations in the central section were not sufficiently emphasised.

Conversely, the comparatively measured speed for the scherzo played down the edgy quality of the music and there were some fussy – and ineffective – hesitations and speeding-up in the trio. The string-saturated third movement sounded much too luxuriant, more warm Vaughan Williams than icy Siberia, though there were some poignant moments such as the lonely oboe against violin tremolos and the sad tolling of harp and celesta at the close. The eventual ‘triumph’ (is it really that?) of the symphony’s coda did not feel as if it had been striven for and one had the sense that this was a late-Romantic symphony as opposed to one being conceived in more troubled times.

It was not evident that a close rapport had been established between the orchestra and its new Chief Conductor; perhaps a different view might emerge in time. Very often, the First Night of the Proms has something special to offer, be it in the form of adventurous programming or an especially illuminating performance. This first night actually felt quite ‘ordinary’, so we must hope that some sparks will fly over the course of the ensuing weeks.

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