However resilient your optimism, however overcheery the Royal Albert Hall lighting to mark its 150th anniversary, the sight of empty seats for one of the star events of the 2021 Proms struck a melancholy note. Close-packed humanity is part of the Proms experience. Last year, performers played to an empty hall. This year all 52 concerts – some attractive programmes, but no big foreign orchestras – are now open at full capacity. That news came too late to ensure the usual big crowds, and the lack of tourists won’t help, but this is a changing situation: numbers are sure to pick up.
The opening weekend included a striking and elegiac first-night world premiere by James MacMillan, When Soft Voices Die, and a Broadway night on Saturday, but it already boasted a season highlight: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s all-Mozart Prom last Sunday, conducted by their supercharged principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.
One of the UK’s most flexible ensembles, the SCO gave an unforgettable, exhilarating account of Mozart’s three last symphonies, No 39 in E flat, No 40 in G minor and No 41 in C major, “Jupiter”, astonishingly all written in a matter of weeks in the summer of 1788. The SCO has long specialised in Mozart, dating back to their golden years with their late conductor laureate, Charles Mackerras. Emelyanychev, too, is a gifted Mozartian: as a young keyboard player he was part of MusicAeterna’s trailblazing Mozart cycle at Perm Opera, conducted by Teodor Currentzis.
These symphonies grow from genial and dramatic (No 39) to shadowy, sorrowful, bizarre (No 40), to powerful and grand (No 41). Every shade and detail – woodwind ornament, valveless-brass volley, thudding timpani, buoyant strings – gleamed with precision and intelligence.
Emelyanychev, who uses neither podium nor baton, danced a nimble quickstep around the stage, urging, cajoling his musicians with fiery energy. We heard afresh this music’s mystery and brilliance.
Prom 4 is available to watch on BBC iPlayer, along with the first-night Prom. The Golden Age of Broadway Prom is on BBC Two tonight, 6,30pm, then on the iPlayer