First night of the Proms review – tribute to France opens a stirring evening

Royal Albert Hall, London
Conductor Sakari Oramo rightly began with an impromptu French national anthem, leading into Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and a compelling Elgar concerto from cellist Sol Gabetta, among other highlights

Everyone, not only the Prommers, stood for the first piece played in this year’s BBC Proms. In an unannounced gesture of solidarity, conductor Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra led off with the Marseillaise, as the lights behind them turned red, white and blue. It may not have been what David Pickard had initially planned as the opening piece of his first season in charge of the Proms, but it was indubitably the right music to play.

No one is expecting Pickard, formerly director of Glyndebourne, to take the Proms in a radical new direction, but the initiative in his first season of putting on a handful of concerts in different, one-off venues – including the Old Royal Naval College and the Roundhouse – is a promising one. There are no all-pervasive, stifling themes; nor, as the major anniversary this year is Shakespeare’s, will there be endless swathes of music from a single composer.

Not that the Proms is anywhere near abandoning the Royal Albert Hall, for all the challenges of its barn-like acoustics. The BBC Symphony Orchestra knows the venue better than most, and it made sure the details of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture – the first of many Shakespeare-inspired works this season – didn’t disappear into the huge space.

Oramo has been a galvanising force with this orchestra since his arrival as chief conductor exactly three years ago, and his players were on characterful form, the woodwinds sounding plaintive in imitation of a Russian church choir at the start, the strings gutsy and vibrant as the tempo picked up. The love theme was taken more slowly than usual, yet Oramo ensured it always had a sense of direction.

Ten cello concertos are programmed this season. The first, Elgar’s masterly, elegiac work, brought a magnetic performance from Sol Gabetta, who made the long melodic lines sing and who brought a haunting inwardness to the slow movement, full of questions asked with no hope of an answer.

Elsewhere she chose to bring out different points of emphasis to those listeners have come to expect, pushing on through some musical gestures that others – especially Jacqueline du Pré , from whose long shadow every interpreter of this concerto must struggle to emerge – have drawn out into impassioned cries of desperation.

It worked, because the calmer passages had such richness and depth, and because her touches of playfulness were so poised, though some of the work’s potential emotion perhaps remained untapped.

Her encore brought us the new music missing from the rest of the programme: Dolcissimo by Peteris Vasks, a dewdrop of a piece full of shimmering slides and mesmerising drones – like the sound of a high wire twanging – which in one passage had Gabetta singing wordlessly as she played.

The First Night almost always means a big choral work, and if the gung-ho nationalism and battle depiction in Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky sat uneasily with the mood of the evening’s beginning, it was still good to hear this action-packed score, which derives from Prokofiev’s soundtrack to Eisenstein’s 1938 film of the same name. Olga Borodina provided velvety Russian tone in a heartfelt lament over the bodies on the battlefield, and to say that the two massed choirs – the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales – did not pale beside her is a compliment indeed.

The Proms run until 10 September.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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