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First Night of the Proms

Stravinsky, Chabrier, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Elgar, Brahms and Bruckner

Stravinsky: Fireworks (1908 rev 1909)
Chabrier: Ode à la musique (1890 orch 1891)
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.3 in E flat, op.75 (1893) 
Poulenc: Concerto in D minor for 2 pianos (1932)
Elgar: In the South (Alassio), op.50 (1903/1904)  
Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, op.53 (1869)  
Bruckner:  Psalm 150 (1892)

Ailish Tynan – soprano; Alice Coote – mezzo-soprano; Stephen Hough – piano; Katia and Marielle Labèque – pianos
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master Stephen Jackson)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jiří Bělohlávek

Royal Albert Hall – 17 July 2009

On paper this looked like a truly festive way to start the 115th season of BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts – something light, leading to some real meat. Unfortunately, although the planning was sound, the performances, in the first two parts – the Poulenc stood alone as the middle point – at least, left something to be desired.


Chabrier’s Ode à la musique is a delicate piece of early impressionism, beautifully, and transparently, scored for female chorus and small orchestra with solo soprano which requires the most subtle of touches. Here, as elsewhere, there was little magic in the interpretation, it was all too heavy and Alish Tynan’s contribution was spoiled by her wide vibrato. Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Concerto is a torso; the composer’s death intervened in its creation. Stephen Hough played very well, but one wonders if his effort was really worth it. The piece itself is, it must be said, rather banal and incomplete. One feels that had Tchaikovsky lived he would have returned to what he had written and tightened and cleaned up the, somewhat, ragged construction and shortened the cadenza. Strangely, there were passages which seemed more than reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Fireworks about halfway through and one couldn’t help but wonder if the younger man was aware of Tchaikovsky’s work. Certainly the similarities are striking, and with regard to Fireworks, which is a damp squib of a piece at best, it seems incredible that this work excited Diaghilev sufficiently to make him commission a ballet from the composer.


The middle of the three parts of this concert contained Poulenc’s utterly delicious Concerto for Two Pianos – a work of grace and charm full of great good feelings and humorous intent but with a Mozartean heart of gold for a slow movement: that it was to be played by the Labèque sisters made the mouth water in anticipation. Unfortunately, as with the first part, a lot was left to be desired. The sisters, although

throwing off their difficult parts with aplomb, were willful in their interpretation, playing with a hard edged attack and rushing through passagework in the outer movements. The quiet coda to the first movement, with its reminiscence of the gamelan, was suitably restrained and although the slow movement was charming there was a detachment to the playing. The audience lapped it up and the sisters gave a brief, and humorous, Polka by Adolfo Berio (grandfather of Luciano) as an encore.


I felt that the major problem with the concert, so far, was that it wasn’t the right repertoire for the conductor and he seemed ill at ease with the music. What happened in the third part of the concert dispelled all my misgivings for Bělohlávek delivered a swaggering and quite magnificent performance of Elgar’s In the South “Overture” (surely this is a tone poem). The opening paragraph was as flamboyant as one could have hoped for with the most thrilling orchestral playing the BBC Symphony could manage. The Roman ruins section was well measured and quite frightening in its unleashed power and the glorious interlude In Moonlight, which was given slightly more slowly than usual, was heart meltingly lovely – with a fine contribution from Norbert Blume, principal viola of the orchestra, and some very distinguished solo playing from the woodwind. The coda was very well handled and brought the work to a fine conclusion. This was spine tingling stuff indeed and Bělohlávek knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Hopefully, on the strength of this, we might hear him in more Elgar for he certainly understands the music. I would have been happy to leave at this point, for one would have thought it impossible to top this performance, but after a beautifully understated performance of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, with a very notable contribution from the marvelous Alice Coote, the full BBC Symphony Chorus (200 plus voices) joined the orchestra and the Royal Albert Hall organ for a roof raising performance of Bruckner’s Psalm 150.


Thanks to the excitement and thrilling abandon of the Elgar and Bruckner works, this new season of the Proms has got off to a fine, if slightly belated, start. I am looking forward to my further visits to this, the “greatest music festival in the world”.


David Bird

Image: The 'world's biggest music festival' Photograph: Graeme Robertson