Prom 1: Christine Brewer / Pierre-Laurent Aimard / Nicholas Daniel / Wayne Marshall / Royal College of Music Brass / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek - Royal Albert Hall, 18 July 2008
R. Strauss Festliches Präludium
Mozart Oboe Concerto in C major, K314
R. Strauss Four Last Songs
Messiaen Dieu parmi nous, from 'La Nativité du Seigneur'
Beethoven Rondo in B-flat, for piano and orchestra
E. Carter Caténaires (solo piano)
Scriabin The Poem of Ecstasy
If there's one thing the Proms are good for, it's a whinge or two. So here, in no particular order:
- the weather. In place of the usual bugbear, scorching heat inside and out, this year's Proms started damp and blustery, with the odd shower sprinkling those of us queuing outside. The white at the top of the picture >>>>>
isn't overexposure btw - it's a solid bank of cloud....
- the first night programme. A bitty 'sampler' that needed a different orchestra/stage configuration for each piece. Seemingly designed to maximise tea break time for the TV audience at home (the whole Prom was broadcast live, and is still available on the BBC iPlayer here if you're interested), but all the fannying around completely disrupted the momentum for the live audience.
- the free Proms pocket guides running out before the concert had even started.
But what about the music? Well, the opening Festliches Präludium shows Strauss at his least subtle, all banging organ chords and brass fanfares. Bělohlávek conjured up decibels on a Ted Nugent scale. My ears rang. What a start.
After an eternity of faffing the stage around, the now-drastically pruned orchestra were ready to take on Mozart's Oboe Concerto, with Nick Daniel in the driving seat. A choux puff after Strauss's black forest gateau, it was handled with delicacy and a touch of wit by all concerned. I couldn't help thinking though that for all its charm, it does just go on a bit.
Then came the late sub, the redoubtable Christine Brewer, billowing in on a cloud of white satin and powder blue chiffon. Not many voices can fill the Royal Albert Hall, so the knob masters at the BBC often twiddle up the vocal volume for the benefit of home viewers. But la Brewer chose instead to give her live audience a real performance. She belted out Strauss's Four Last Songs at her impressive full capacity. Subtlety was necessarily in short measure, but her lusciously creamy soprano, capped with a remarkably even vibrato, rang out to the back of the hall.
I know it's Messiaen's anniversary year and all that, but even a diehard fan couldn't complain about the amount of Messiaen on offer at this year's Proms. The first of the many tributes came with a stunning Dieu parmi nous from Wayne Marshall. I could barely see him, bent over between the 9,999 pipes of Britain's second largest organ in his stage-rear eyrie, but the sound was ear-splitting.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the evening's final soloist. A rather slight piece of early Beethoven, the B flat Rondo, with orchestra, was followed by Elliot Carter's Caténaires. Written for Aimard, and receiving its UK premiere, it's a tiny twinkling gem, a mad ant dash around the keyboard that displays Aimard's extraordinary skill with line and phrasing (not to mention virtuosity) to the full.
The closer, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, was hardly an orgy of sensuous abandon under the dour baton of Bělohlávek, but was at least lively enough to end the evening in the spirit of celebration in which it had begun. And like everything else on this evening, loud.
Incidentally, I was surprised to read a review of the Scriabin in The Guardian, as my friend Lu claims she was sitting right behind its author in the side stalls and he left just before it began. But perhaps it's a case of mistaken identity.
No mistakes about The Times Proms podcast - several of us in the Arena watched discreetly as a couple of Timesers stood in the corner recording this before the concert. So if they say it comes directly from the Proms, it's nothing but the truth.