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Christine Brewer (Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of the BBC)
23 Jul 2008

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It’s not so long ago that the opening night of the Proms was given over to a single major choral work, but in more recent times it has become more of an overt opener to the season, presenting a taster menu of the themes running through the season’s subsequent 70-plus concerts.

The First Night of the Proms: Richard Strauss, Festliches Präludium; Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C major (K314); R. Strauss Four Last Songs; Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur - Dieu parmi nous; Beethoven, Rondo in B flat for piano and orchestra; Elliott Carter, Caténaires for solo piano; Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy

Christine Brewer (soprano), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Wayne Marshall (organ), Royal College of Music Brass, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek (cond.)

Above: Christine Brewer
All photos by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of the BBC


Under their director Jiří Bĕlohlávek, the BBC Symphony Orchestra (with reinforcements from Royal College of Music Brass) opened the concert with Richard Strauss’s Festliches Präludium, a fine choice of overture for such an occasion, grandiose but joyful.

In the Mozart Oboe Concerto (K.314), soloist Nicholas Daniel was bright, witty and full of personality, with some beautiful pianissimi in the slow movement. The orchestral ensemble fell apart at the seams a little on more than one occasion, but overall it was a delight, not spoiled by the half-hearted applause between movements from somewhere in the upper reaches of the hall (which went on to mar the Strauss which followed).

Next on the bill were Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder, with a change of soloist: an indisposed Karita Mattila replaced by Christine Brewer. Brewer sings with the BBC SO fairly regularly, and she was a radiant Brünnhilde (in Götterdämmerung) last year at the Proms under Runnicles. Unfortunately, this time something didn’t quite come together – there was no sweep to the phrasing and her top sounded shrill under pressure. Finally in “Beim Schlafengehen” she found some complexity and ‘centre’, and for a few moments she cast a rapt spell... before heading off into “Im Abendrot” in indifferent, fudged German.

Although the Proms offer an eclectic mix of music spanning the breadth of the Western art music repertoire, with the occasional foray into other genres such as jazz, ‘world’ and folk, there are generally some threads to tie much of the season together. In particular, there is usually an attempt to celebrate significant anniversaries of composers’ births and deaths, and one such occasion for 2008 is the centenary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen – indeed, the Frenchman is virtually omnipresent over the course of the season, featuring in twelve more concerts ranging from solo organ works to a visit from the Berlin Philharmonic with the Turangalîla Symphony and a concert performance of the operatic magnum opus Saint-François d’Assise by the Nederlandse Opera.

To introduce the upcoming Messiaen-fest, the second half of the first-night concert was introduced by Wayne Marshall on the Royal Albert Hall’s mighty Willis organ in a fairly earth-shaking account of “ Dieu parmi nous”, the final episode from La Nativité du Seigneur.

Born just one day after Messiaen, the American composer Elliot Carter is still alive and – as far as I know – still composing, in his hundredth year. The UK première of his Caténaires was perhaps the highlight of the concert, a four-minute virtuoso perpetuum mobile for solo piano showing off Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s extraordinary ability. Prior to this, Aimard and the orchestra gave a light-footed and fresh performance of Beethoven’s Rondo in B flat major.

First_Night_Proms_2008.pngFirst Night of the Proms 2008

The Scriabin The Poem of Ecstasy, which concluded the evening was a well-chosen counterbalance to the opening Strauss – full of rich grandeur in brass and tuned percussion.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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