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Alice Coote [Photo by Anne-Marie Le Blé]
19 Jul 2009

Alice Coote stars in the First Night of the BBC Proms 2009

The Proms reach people all over the world, bringing them together for a kind of international street party, celebrating a shared love of music. If the arts make us more human and humane, then the BBC Proms are a force for good.

BBC Proms: 17th July, 2009, Royal Albert Hall, London
Stravinsky: Fireworks; Chabrier: Ode to Music; Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 3; Poulenc: Concerto in D minor for two pianos; Elgar: In the South; Brahms: Alto Rhapsody; Bruckner: Psalm 150.

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Ailish Tynan (soprano), Stephen Hough (piano), Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiřì Belohlàvek (conductor)

Above: Alice Coote [Photo by Anne-Marie Blé]


The atmosphere at the First Night is electric, everyone’s in a party mood. Yet the high point of this Prom was Alice Coote’s stunning Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, op. 53, heard for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in 41 years.

The Prom began with Stravinsky’s Fireworks, op 4. It’s a bagatelle, but Diaghilev liked it so much he commissioned The Firebird and then The Rite of Spring. So from this acorn grew modern music. Not even the carnage of the First World War could stem the tide. This year’s Proms will feature all of Stravinsky’s ballets.

Chabrier’s Ode to Music followed. Ailish Tynan has been on many Young Artist programs, many of which were BBC funded and promoted. She’s proof that such sponsorship nurtures performers. It must be nerve wracking to sing before an audience of millions, so Jiřì Belohlàvek led the BBC Symphony Orchestra sensitively. Belohlàvek is proving a revelation in London music circles. He has no equal in Czech and Slavic repertoire. Recently his Dvořàk’s Rusalka at Glyndebourne won great acclaim. At last year’s Proms, he produced a superlative Janàček Osud. This year he’ll be conducting Smetana and Martinů.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 3 is another acorn, but one which didn’t grow past its first movement. Yet it’s interesting because it shows how full of life the composer was just before he died. No “curse of the Pathétique”, then. This rarity was a surprising choice for something as high profile as the First Night of the Proms, when the audience is happy with flashy crowd pleasers. But in a quirky way, that’s why it worked. The Proms may appear safe, but there’s enough challenge for those prepared to venture.

Back to fireworks with Katia and Marielle Labèque. Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for two pianos is a three part drama, an interplay between two different pianists and orchestra, with individual instruments playing smaller supporting roles. Moods swing between tender and jazzy, from elegant serenity to uninhibited joy. For an encore, the Labèques then played four hands on one keyboard, a lively polka by Berio - not Luciano but his grandfather. Another Proms surprise !

International as the Proms may be, they symbolize Britishness to many, so it was good to hear Elgar, in sunny mode, In the South played with élan.

The heart of this Prom, though, wasn’t the obvious cheerful pieces but Brahms’s devastating Rhapsody for Contralto, the Alto Rhapsody. Alice Coote’s performance was searing, white hot with intensity, without sacrificing the compassion and dignity that makes the piece so moving.

Goethe’s poem depicts an outcast who sets off away into the wilderness. From a brooding orchestral introduction, Coote’s voice projects into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall. It’s important that she has such command, for the poem pits an individual against overwhelming forces. “Die Ode verschlingt ihn” goes the text, “the desert engulfs him”. Coote breathed into the “o” in “Ode” so it rang resonantly, yet hinted subtly of the hollowness within. Then she extended “verschlingt”, stretching it to evoke distance and then oblivion.

There’s something neurotic about this poem. The disappointed man “furtively feeds on his own worth in unfulfilling self-love”. (“zehrt er heimlich auf seinen eignen Wert in ung’nügender Selbstsucht”). Coote showed how the repeated sounds “seinen” and “eignen” elucidate meaning. The protagonist is going round in circles, grinding himself down. Maybe that’s why the poem appealed to Brahms? Ostensibly he was upset that he’d been jilted by Clara Schumann’s daughter but there’s no evidence that he had a real relationship with her, or indeed with any woman, Clara included.

Perhaps that’s why the resolution in this piece comes from the way Brahms integrates the soloist, chorus and orchestra. A characteristic Brahmsian flute melody appears, at first tentatively, then grows in power, joined in the final strophe with the choir of men’s voices : no longer is the mezzo really alone, for the Vater der Liebe (father of love, possibly God) has shown mercy, revealing the “thousand springs that can help the thirsty in the desert” (“die tausend Quellen neben dem Durstenden in der Wüste”) Coote rounds the vowel sounds in “Wüste” making the word grow with as if absorbing nourishment.

The Alto Rhapsody is a powerful work, Brahms’s Winterreise, if you will, heralding the even more profound Vier ernste Gesänge, op. 121. After a performance like this it was hard to take in anything else.

All Proms are available for listening online and on demand on the BBC Proms website. The First Night was televised so there’s also a video upload, Over the next few weeks, Opera Today will be covering Proms of opera and vocal interest, including a new Handel Partenope (with Andreas Scholl) and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. a semi staging of the current Glyndebourne production reviewed in June.

Anne Ozorio

Click here to access the BBC Proms web site.

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