United Kingdom Prom 1: The First Night of the Proms; Lars Vogt (piano), Christopher Maltman (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.7.2015. (MMB)
Nielsen: Maskarade – Overture
Gary Carpenter: Dadaville
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466
Sibelius: Belshazzar’s Feast – suite
Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast
As ever on the First Night of the Proms, the Royal Albert Hall seems to pulsate in happy anticipation of what’s to come in the next eight weeks. The energy was palpable and people could barely wait for the concert to start. The arena was packed and so was most of the auditorium though there were about two dozen empty seats that stood out in the sea of colourful crowds, eagerly awaiting the entrance of the musicians. And when that happened the Hall roared, as if it were an imprisoned animal that’s finally free to roam the world surrounding its cage. Choir members, orchestra and conductor were received with an ovation often reserved for the Last Night, even before they’d started playing.
The evening began with a lovely, joyous and bright piece – the overture from Nielsen’s opera Maskarade, completed in 1906. It was performed with obvious delight by orchestra and conductor and set the tone for what was to come next – a new piece from British composer Gary Carpenter, specially commissioned by the BBC.
Carpenter’s brief work (only six minutes) was inspired by a painted relief, entitled Dadaville, by the German surrealist artist and founder of the Dada movement in Cologne, Max Ernst (1891-1976). Carpenter is a composer who always creates an exquisite mixture of sound and this little gem is no exception. It is a joyous piece with jazzy elements, almost swing-like, which gives it a rather special charm, and the finale was as fabulous as it was unexpected. Carpenter explained in the programme notes that looking at Ernst’s work (which depicts an iron wall), he often pondered “what else might live behind this iron/cork wall – something the penultimate bar fleetingly hints at…” He deliberately leaves out the end of the sentence, hinting at a surprise. And so it was. The piece finished literally with a bang and fireworks at the top of the Hall. It stunned the audience, bringing a variety of amazed exclamations. People spontaneously exploded in an enthusiastic applause, almost as an extension of the final fireworks and, as we all know, the First Night of the Proms must start with a bang and you’ve just got to have fireworks too! Carpenter came on stage to acknowledge happily the well-deserved, fervent applause.
The first two very enjoyable small pieces were followed by Mozart’s glorious Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Of all of Mozart’s piano concertos this is my favourite. From the oppressive conflict between piano and orchestra in the first movement to the sweetness and contrasting freedom of the second and the pure joy of the Rondo finale it is Mozart at his very best. Therefore it pains me to say that I was a little disappointed. To start with, Mozart at the Royal Albert Hall always feels a little out of place, almost as if the size of the building and the enormous auditorium crush the music. Orchestras in Mozart’s time were smaller than today’s and so the sound often feels dwarfed and loses impact when performed in a place as large and with not so good acoustics as the Albert Hall. It was up to German pianist Lars Vogt to make the concerto shine. Vogt is an outstanding pianist and one of the greats of our time but I am sorry to say that his rendition of this Mozart concerto didn’t excite me. Vogt stated in the programme notes that this concerto is a piece that even after so many years, still sends shivers down his spine and gives him goosebumps. It didn’t come across that way. While his execution was excellent, very clear and with an admirable classical quality, I missed the passion, the contradictory emotions, the oppression and the final sense of freedom and joy. Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the other hand, expressed the emotional turmoil with a bit more drama that contributed to a favourable, pleasant performance of the concerto as a whole.
After the interval we had two very contrasting pieces about the same topic: the biblical tale of Belshazzar’s feast. The first was Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast Suite and the second William Walton’s. Sibelius’s piece is short (approximately fourteen minutes) and formed of four movements. The piece started life as incidental music to a play written by his friend Hjalmar Procopé. While the play has been largely forgotten, Sibelius’s music endures. It is a very evocative piece; in particular the second movement, Solitude and the third, Nocturne are extremely beautiful and touching. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, led by Oramo, really came into their own and gave a moving, subtle and rather good performance of Sibelius exquisite music. Principal Cellist Susan Monks was outstanding in the string solos of the second movement as was flautist Michael Cox in the heartfelt third.
And then came the other Belshazzar’s Feast. Walton’s Feast couldn’t be a bigger contrast to Sibelius’s. It is a spectacular cantata and the sort of grandiose, exuberant work that suits an auditorium the size of the Royal Albert Hall. The solo part was sung by excellent British baritone Christopher Maltman. He was in good form and sang the part exceptionally well, easily projecting his warm, sonorous baritone to the back of the Hall (no mean feat at the RAH). He has very clear enunciation which suits and enhances the meaning of the biblical text. But Belshazzar’s Feast is really a show stopper for the chorus and the orchestra and they lived up to it. No less than three choirs: BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus – over two hundred voices strong – were present in the Hall and they were simply brilliant. Needless to say that when they sang at full power it was a blast, a wave of sound that engulfs and assaults the senses, vibrating one’s skin and shaking the very walls of the Hall. The same goes for the orchestra with some one hundred musicians in a roller coaster of a score that is as overwhelming as it is loud. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Finland’s Sakari Oramo produced the required “big” sound with glee and a brilliant execution throughout.
This year’s First Night was a very enjoyable evening of music, possibly not memorable but nevertheless a worthy kick-off of the 2015 Proms. It summed up what the Proms are all about: diversity, international themes and people mingling through music; divulging brand new and at times specially commissioned works; combining the old and the new; and the presentation of contrasting, varied interpretations on similar topics. What more could a musical heart desire?