From the breathless promos that trumpeted the start of BBC Proms 2018, you’d think you were in for 90 concerts over 58 days of nonstop gaiety. Tickets have to be sold. The appeal must be broad. There is, even, from time to time, fun. Yet the overriding theme this year is 1918 and the end of the first world war, which calls for the solace, communion and dignity that music so richly provides.
This required some brave programming. Prom 1, performed by the resident BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, launched the season with a tinge of melancholy, not least with the late addition of Flourish With Fireworks by Oliver Knussen, marking the composer’s sudden death the previous week. Alongside works by Holst and Vaughan Williams, the centrepiece was a new commission, Five Telegrams, by Anna Meredith, in collaboration with 59 Productions, who dazzled all with an integral light show, also seen outside the Albert Hall the night before in a unique Proms curtain-raiser. Its subject matter was soldiers’ methods of communication from the front.
Meredith has skilfully transmuted raw actuality into a distilled, at times near weightless elegy: no naive pretence that, a century on, we can or should recreate that suffering but an invitation to meditate and remember. The delicate plucked strings and harp of Redaction, with hushed sputters of steel pan, was especially effective, with the spiky, brassy angularity of Codes following in urgent contrast. Bringing together several musical ensembles as well as the BBCSO, Meredith has made within it a radiant choral piece for the National Youth Choir of Great Britain that could stand alone, son without lumiere. Repeated at the Edinburgh festival, co-commissioners, on 3 August.
Epic symphonies of the 20th century – nothing beats Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”, No 8, live on Radio 3 tonight – have dominated these early Proms. The BBCSO and Oramo made a quick recovery from First Night to plunge (Prom 6) fearlessly into the heady profusions of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8, rev 1990). Pianist Angela Hewitt was incisive and immaculate in her many percussive volleys, fully entering the drama – if you can call it that – of love “charnel et terrible” and love divine. Cynthia Millar, unchallenged sovereign of the ondes martenot, provided whooping, sensuous caresses. As with (almost) any epic, Turangalîla does go on, but it has its moments and the BBCSO revelled in them.
The same could be said of Shostakovich’s Seventh, “Leningrad” (1941), lasting around 75 minutes and demanding a huge orchestra (Prom 4). It has the darkest history, completed during the siege of Leningrad and first performed in that city (after a premiere elsewhere) by emaciated musicians who in some cases were close to death. The BBC Philharmonic, conducted by outgoing music director Juanjo Mena, mustered a fierce performance, making best possible sense of the meandering middle movements (“quantities of uninteresting music”, an early reviewer noted), with some superb playing from section principals. In the first half, the brilliant clarinettist Mark Simpson, also a composer, was the soloist in Magnus Lindberg’s scintillatingly melodic Clarinet Concerto (2002) – a standout performance, rapturously received.
To conclude this gallop through the Proms so far, a brief mention of the year’s first, and ever worthwhile, Cadogan Hall Chamber Music Prom. The Calidore Quartet, BBC New Generation Artists, gave the world premiere of Echo and Ruby part of a trio of “Essays” by the American composer Caroline Shaw (b1982). These beguiling short pieces renewed and stretched the tradition of string quartet writing (no surprise to find Shaw is also a violinist) with full understanding of the idiom.
Locked in an embrace of mischief and high art, Ariadne auf Naxos has an appeal as inexplicable as it is ineluctable. Its double plot, one comic, one lofty, is wrapped in music that ripples from wry and caustic to affectingly big-hearted. It was Opera Holland Park’s choice for its first staging of a Richard Strauss opera, in a strong season that included a first-class La traviata and, still running, the UK premiere staging of Mascagni’s Isabeau.
Directed and designed by Antony McDonald, this co-production of Ariadne with Scottish Opera succeeds on stage and in the pit. Strauss’s score, an enigmatic mix of jaunty detail and voluptuous flow, is perceptively handled by the conductor Brad Cohen. The City of London Sinfonia made light of the traps Strauss sets for orchestral players.
McDonald has given the prologue a dash of Glasgow sauce and tartan, with Eleanor Bron in the speaking role of the no-nonsense, Scottish, gumboot-wearing Party Planner. Mardi Byers’s resplendent Ariadne, the personification of neurosis, and Jennifer France’s fickle, sexy Zerbinetta led the ensemble, all on terrific form, from Alex Otterburn’s athletic Harlequin to Kor-Jan Dusseljee’s sober Bacchus.
No one loves multiple gender-bending more than Strauss. McDonald adds a further erotic twist, felt in full force in the closing moments. The Composer – Julia Sporsén, vehement and intense – is not the usual cross-dressed woman playing a man but, still wearing mannish trousers, a female composer. Try adding that to your quotas.