Undeniably Interesting, if Surprisingly Short, First Night for BBC Proms 2017


United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 1 – Coult, Beethoven, Adams: Igor Levit (piano); BBC Proms Youth Choir; BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.7.2017. (CC)

Prom 1_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_4
Igor Levit (piano) performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor with the BBCSO
conducted by Edward Gardner (c) Chris Christodoulou

Tom Coult – St John’s Dance (world premiere)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Adams – Harmonium

So to 2017’s Proms, and a surprisingly short First Night. Gone are the bi-interval extravaganzas, replaced by “overture” (a brief, six-minute premiere), concerto and second half red meat main course (read choral work). The evening only made it to just after 9.30pm because of Levit’s encore. The well-liked conductor Edward Gardner was at the helm, which made one wonder, as surely it should have been Sakari Oramo, the BBCSO’s principal conductor?

Gardner’s conducting was actually of the first rank. The traditional inclusion of a world premiere was honoured with Tom Coult’s St John’s Dance. Born in 1988, Coult is a promising young composer: in a brief video on the Faber site, Coult refers to one of the first pieces he ever wrote, a set of two solo violin etudes, as being written in 2010. London-based, he has a brilliant sense of orchestration. The Proms commission is one of a string of high-profile works: Beautiful Caged Thing was written for Claire Booth and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Sonnet Machine for the BBC Philharmonic and Spirit of the Staircase for the London Sinfonietta. After study in Manchester, Coult moved to London to study with George Benjamin at King’s College, London. There seems to be something of a predilection for the violin, as in addition to those violin etudes is the 2012 piece Limp for violin and piano, plus the fact that St John’s Dance starts with a solo violin. A quiet way to bring in the season after the (fairly) riotous nature of the 2016 Last Night, perhaps?. The solo violin births a percussion-based dance enhanced by pizzicato strings. Four trumpets dominate the second dance for the tutti before strings, tubular bells and brass give the third before a reprise of the first with the addition of a “deranged-sounding” clarinet. That’s a lot in six minutes, but Coult manages to provide a sense of the wildness of St John’s Dance (also sometimes known as St Vitus’ Dance), sometimes juxtaposing dances in an attempt to conjure up the sheer hysterical-ecstatic nature of the experience. All credit to the BBCSO for its virtuosity, and for Gardner’s superbly clear conducting. The piece is impeccably, imaginatively scored, with nods to Britten and Stravinsky. On hearing the work again on iPlayer, the BBC recording seems to have placed a microphone right next to the bass trombonist: the part did not have quite that clarity, or over-bearing quality, in the hall. Whatever the case, this is a terrifically imaginative piece that deserves frequent airing: it works perfectly both as opener and as orchestral showpiece.

The Beethoven Third Concerto was given a restrained performance. Gardner’s handling of the opening tutti was remarkable, with wonderfully crisp timpani and brilliantly articulated strings. A pity the RAH acoustic ate up some of the woodwind contributions. Levit’s performance, though, was revelatory. Despite the opening scales rightly asserting the pianist’s presence, Levit opted to emphasise the lyrical, interior nature of the work. The level of detail was nothing short of eye-opening, and the many quieter passages were often truly hushed. Although this is the first time Levit and Gardner have performed together, the rapport was immediately evident, and nowhere was it more in evidence than in the orchestral pick-up from the first movement cadenza (Beethoven’s own). As far as Levit’s technique was concerned, ornaments were perfectly crisp, his articulation always spot-on; the repeated notes of the finale were as perfect as I, for one, have ever heard them.

A shame the Proms habit of applause between first movement and second meant the harmonic shift from C minor to E major was lost (almost recouped by Levit later by the almost spiritual arrival of a G major chord). Conducted by Gardner in six, the movement nevertheless flowed beautifully, and Gardner encouraged a real sense of communication between orchestra and piano. Levit’s awareness of the importance of single lines in this movement was remarkable, holding the intensity right through in a Brendel-like fashion.

The finale had more of a sense of extroversion about it, the orchestral fugato well delineated by Gardner and the BBCSO; the coda was appropriately exciting from all concerned. An encore was surely in order …

… and so it was; and what a choice! Levit’s encore, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (“An die Freude”), was based on Liszt’s transcription of the Ninth Symphony but moved into Levit’s own take on it. This is, of course, the EU anthem, and Levit sporting an EU tiepin left us in no doubt of his affiliations (the BBC steered away from any political commentary in the broadcast, instead advertising the Prom that presents the whole of the Ninth Symphony. At least the BBC website commented on it even providing a link to Levit’s post-performance tweet  of “Hey guys, is @realDonaldTrump still President?”).

Great to see the BBC Proms Youth Choir hooking up with the BBC Symphony Chorus for John Adams’ Harmonium (not to be confused with Harmonielehre, fairly recently heard at the Barbican with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert: review). The BBC Proms Youth Choir takes its members from a variety of hubs, this time the Black Country, CBSO Youth Chorus and University of Birmingham Voices, Cornwall County Youth Choir and the BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy (currently in its pilot year and based in London). The total number of musicians onstage for this performance of Harmonium was, according to the BBC, 470. Female voices were piled high to the left, male voices crammed in to the right.

Adams’ Harmonium (1981) was first performed at the Proms in 1990 (CBSO/Rattle); it returned in 2001, again in the opening concert of the season, that time with Leonard Slatkin at the helm. The texts chosen by Adams are by John Donne and Dickinson (Donne inspired Adams to one of his finest moments, his setting of “Batter my heart” in his opera, Doctor Atomic: again, we go back to the Barbican in April this year for Adams’ own semi-staged performance). We celebrate Adams’ 70th year this year, so the inclusion of Harmonium here is fitting. But, while the sound of so many performers under the sure hand of Gardner was undeniably highly impressive, like so much Adams’ music this offers much noise but not a huge amount of substance. The fabulous diction of the choir, the brilliant sound (the younger voices adding a specific glint) was highly impressive, and the central panel, Dickinson’s famous “Because I could not stop for Death,” held much beauty. Gardner timed the growth of momentum towards the end of this central movement impeccably, while the finale was rousing and exuberant. And yet at the back of it all is a nagging doubt about Adams’ music: much is frankly unmemorable and tends towards the anonymous.

The Proms programme booklet seems to have replaced David Gutman’s always useful references to recordings of featured pieces (and books about them) with “The Proms Listening Service”, a Classic FM-style “explanation” of the programme by Tom Service with a hint of “if you like x, you’ll probably like y”. Gutman’s “Previously at the Proms” remains, at least, in place. An extra once-over by the proof readers might have saved the repeated “Adams continues to conduct worldwide” twice in two adjacent sentences in Adams’ artist biography, too (page 16).

An undeniably interesting beginning to the 2017 season, but not one that left this audience member, at least, uttering superlatives under his breath en route to South Kensington tube station. There are some mouth-watering programmes coming up, though. Watch this space.

Colin Clarke

For more about the BBC Proms 2017 visit https://www.bbc.co.uk/proms.

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