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Benjamin Grosvenor [Photo courtesy of the BBC]
16 Jul 2011

First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms

The First Night of the Proms seems to be edging back, if a little hesitantly, from the strange, unsatisfying ‘tasting menu’ approach adopted for a few years.

Judith Weir: Stars, Night, Music, and Light (BBC commission, world premiere); Johannes Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, op.80 (arr. Sir Malcolm Sargent); Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125; Leoš Janáček: Glagolitic Mass (September 1927 version).

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano); Hibla Gerzmava (soprano); Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke (tenor); Jan Martiník (bass); David Goode (organ); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); BBC Symphony Orchestra ; Jiři Bělohlávek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 15 July 2011.

Above: Benjamin Grosvenor [Photo courtesy of the BBC]


Last year it reverted to the long-established tradition of a single large-scale work, often but not always choral, with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony . This year we heard an excellent performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, but with a first half whose programming did not really come off. A fanfare followed by an overture followed by a concerto probably had at least one piece too many, but might have persuaded had the two opening works proved more convincing. It seemed an excellent idea to open with a newly commissioned work and Judith Weir seemed an excellent choice: an often unsung composer whose works have long displayed such fine compositional craft. Stars, Night, Music, and Light , written for chorus and almost the same orchestral forces as Janáček’s mass (minus harps, offstage clarinets, and celesta) sets words from George Herbert’s Man:

The stares have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sunne withdraws;
Musick and light attend our head.

So far so good, yet the opening kettledrum rolls and brass fanfares signalled a damp squib of a curtain-raiser. My friend put it succinctly: ‘a cross between Vaughan Williams and MGM’. And whilst there seemed to be an aspiration to a briefer (three-minute) version of RVW’s Serenade to Music, it was quite without that work’s magic. ‘Lush’ tonal harmonies, too shop-soiled by popular entertainments for us to be able to take them anything other than ironically, jostled with descending scales on the organ that sounded as if straight from the music hall: Poulenc, but again apparently without irony. There was a little more bite from the brass, but the overall effect was of camp without wit. I suspect that this is destined to remain an ‘occasional piece’.

The following Brahms Academic Festival Overture was heard with Sir Malcolm Sargent’s additional part — restoration, if you will — for chorus at the close: the ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, with an ‘occasional’ final line from Sargent: ‘Vivant academiae musicale!’ (‘Long live music colleges!’) If you like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing you will like; it sounded a bit like an attempt to resurrect  a 1950s world of school prize days. Jiři Bělohlávek took the overture at so swift a pace, despite generally alert playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that it actually sounded quite frantic at times: a first for me and, I hope, a last.

That over with, we were treated to an estimable performance of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. If Liszt is not having quite the anniversary year some of us had hoped for — where is Christus or The Legend of St Elisabeth? — then the Proms are to be commended for featuring his music throughout the season. Bělohlávek and the BBC SO immediately sounded much more at ease; I had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the piece had benefited from greater rehearsal time than the Brahms. Moreover, string tone, previously somewhat wiry, now mellowed and blossomed. That was before Benjamin Grosvenor, at nineteen years old apparently the youngest Proms piano soloist, had played a note. There was nothing jejune about Grosvenor’s performance, which deserved to be taken seriously indeed. From the outset, his pearly piano tone rendered Liszt’s line both clear and meaningful, rhythmic alertness from all concerned adding much to that sense of direction and meaning. Much of the concerto, quite rightly, was taken as chamber music — the real reason that Liszt wrote relatively little ‘pure’ chamber music is that, like Wagner’s, it is there in his larger-scale works — with piano and orchestral contributions nicely shaded, never unduly forced. When the music turned martial, such transformation was never overstated: that vulgarity of which Liszt, not entirely unjustly, has often been accused was not present on this occasion. Indeed, Bělohlávek and Grosvenor proved well attuned to the subtleties of Liszt’s transformational technique, which was to cast such a shadow over the course of twentieth-century music, to the Second Viennese School and beyond. Virtuosity never appeared as mere virtuosity: even the diabolical had something of the classical to it. True, one did not experience the electric shock of Sviatoslav Richter’s glissandi, but one encountered a pianist who seemed to have as sure a grasp of Liszt’s form.  An auspicious Proms debut indeed!

The Glagolitic Mass was given in a new edition by Jiří Zahrádka and Leoš Faltus, which apparently restores passages simplified prior to the first performance in December 1927. According to the programme, the changes included simplification of rhythms, removal of the ‘offstage’ marking for a passage for three clarinets in the ‘Věruju’ (Credo) and cuts to both that movement and the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus). More may be read here concerning the edition, which Zahrádka modestly terms ‘an informative curiosity of sorts’. For what it is worth, I tend to prefer the practice of opening the Mass with the ‘Intrada’, but here we heard the ‘Introduction’, which to my ears fizzles out by comparison. Perhaps it remains more important, however, to recount that the Mass received a performance as impressive as that of the Liszt concerto. One can often tell a great deal — as, indeed one did during the Liszt — from the opening bars of a performance. Such was also the case here, for sharpness of attack, command of the composer’s idioms, and a fine ear for what one might call the ‘pastoral’, did the term not seem so constricting in Janáček’s all-embracing  sound-world, characterised those bars. If the conclusion of the Introduction sounded somewhat sedate, that was my only real cavil. The ‘Slava’ (Gloria) made it clear, as did so much of the rest of the score and its performance, that this was a God of Nature, of wide-open spaces, of pantheistic, Cunning Little Vixen-like wonder. Oddly, then, one proceeds the passages referring to Christ almost as if they were tales of an ancient saga — Bartók’s Cantata Profana came to mind, though it was written slightly later — rather than items of faith relating to the second person of the Holy Trinity. Or at least that is what I did on this occasion, guided no doubt by so fresh and ‘open’ a performance.  Stefan Vinke’s delivery was not without strain, but one can hardly expect Janáček’s lines to be despatched otherwise: crucially, there was imparted a sense of wonder, of intoxicated lyricism. Much the same could be said of Dagmar Pecková’s contributions. Those soloists, the tenor in particular, have the lion’s share of the solo work, but Jan Martiník and Hibla Gerzmava impressed where they could too. It was, though, the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers who made the greatest vocal impression of all, whether in tossing cries of glory from male to female sections, and back again, or in the beautiful a cappella singing of the ‘Agneče Božij’(Agnus Dei), in which the chorus sounded as dynamically malleable as the orchestra. There was a great deal to praise from the BBC SO too, whether in solo work (the three pairs of kettledrums, or Stephen Bryant’s sweet-toned violin solo at the opening of the ‘Svet’) or in the almost overwhelming closing peroration of the Intrada. The dark, even sinister imprecation of the ‘Agneče Božij’ (no ‘Dona  nobis pacem’ here, be it noted) was indeed first and foremost orchestral. David Goode’s performance, both during the ‘Allegro’ organ solo and elsewhere, was first-class, well-chosen registration and dextrously-navigated changes of manuals turning the monster of the Royal Albert Hall organ into a musical instrument, and a modernistically interesting musical instrument at that. There was no comparison with the puny electronic instrument Sir Colin Davis’s recent Barbican performance had to endure.  And behind, or rather in front of, the vast forces, was the wise, guiding hands of Bělohlávek. He has sounded out of sorts in too many BBC concerts; yet, in the right repertoire, whose idiom he clearly understands, and which he evidently relates to Slavonic (or, more often, Czech) speech rhythms, he remains an impressive musician. For the Glagolitic Mass to come across in so apparently ‘natural’, unforced, yet exultant fashion must have been in good part his doing.

 Mark Berry

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