Prom 1 – A vibrant, outstanding First Night of the 2011 Proms

Weir; Brahms, Liszt and Janáček:  Benjamin Grosvenor (piano); Hibla Gerzmava (soprano); Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke (tenor); Jan Martinik (bass); David Goode (organ); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Jiři Bĕlohlávek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 15.7.2011 (KC)

Judith Weir: Stars, Night, Music & Lights (BBC commission) (World Premiere)

Johannes Brahms: Academic Festival Overture

Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major

Leoš Janáček:  Glagolitic Mass

Stars, Night, Music & Lights depicted the night sky with grave dignity. In this four minute piece, Judith Weir’s characteristic sonic austerity declared the opening of the 2011 Prom season. A large orchestra moved from a stately, motionless sky to one where movements of different kinds were murky yet discernable, culminating in a choral climax using a text drawn from George Herbert’s poem ‘Man’. This was a serious, sober beginning. The concert series will end in exuberant, rousing splendour on the Last Night.

Bĕlohlávek took the Academic Festival Overture at sprightly pace, suggesting the spring and stride of a crowd of students parading their presence. The music did not drag nor proceed at a gallop. Moreover, tonight, joyously, was a vocal occasion: the choirs broke into ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’ (plus a phrase donated long ago by Sir Malcolm Sargent), establishing a rousing, human-voiced climax to a piece setting out to recall the spirited, lubricated throats of young men at university in the late nineteenth century.

The Liszt Piano Concerto is cast in one movement. It is quite short and took some eighteen years to write. Liszt’s intention, broadly, was to present a unitary opus, in which moments of allegro, scherzo and adagio coalesced in the course of exploring a main theme in various possible guises. In addition, the music provides the soloist with the opportunity to explore this theme delicately and meditatively, yet also with bravura and pyrotechnic splendour. Further, the pianist becomes a modest but telling accompanist to a cello’s lyrical solo.

Bĕlohlávek showed a clear affinity with Liszt, unassumingly introducing the versatility of all these variations. Clearly recognising that this concerto was searching and experimental, his conducting was sensitive to fleeting changes and without bombast. The concerto is ‘small’, but has much to say musically to those with the patience and sensitivity to listen.

In all this, Bĕlohlávek had marvellous support from Benjamin Grosvenor, trained at the RAM and just two days past his nineteenth birthday. The orchestra applauded him as he entered. Note that. It is a rare acclaim and was utterly deserved. This performance was an astonishing display from a musician too deeply concerned to convey the music’s integrity to bother about any cheap aspects of display. He bestrode the technical difficulties – from flickering vulnerability to grandiloquent double octaves – and triumphantly honoured Liszt’s inspiration. Grosvenor’s impressive present suggests an outstanding future: he is already a distinctive musician, no mere technician. (The names Richter and Grimaud come to mind.)

The concert finished – in some respects began anew – with Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, one of the greatest choral works of the last century, with a grandeur both monolithic and rugged.

Bĕlohlávek grew up with it. The performance he brought about was Czech/Moravian in character, though held back a little through English reticence. Certainly, the orchestra sensed the instrumental grandeur of the piece. Hibla Gerzmava and Jan Martinik gave majestic authority to Janáček’s enthralling solo writing. David Goode handled the often difficult organ part skilfully indeed. There was finesse in his fingers and feet but, I felt, no fire in his belly. The choirs approached the Slavic manner of arresting utterance – much must be due to their  choir master Stephen Jackson, in collaboration with Bĕlohlávek. Their soft, insistent but reverent ‘veruj’ was inspiring, just as much as their vehement joy at the Mass’ close.

All in all, this was a resounding, exultant close to a vibrant, outstanding First Night.

Ken Carter