First Night of the 2011 BBC Proms

Last year it reverted to the long-established tradition of a single
large-scale work, often but not always choral, with Mahler’s Eighth
. This year we heard an excellent performance of Jan·?ek’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 Jan·?ek’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
, 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. Ji?i B?lohl·vek 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
? — then the Proms are to be commended for featuring his music
throughout the season. B?lohl·vek 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, B?lohl·vek 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 Ji?Ì Zahr·dka
and Leoö 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 ‘V?ruju’ (Credo) and cuts to both that
movement and the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus). More may be read here
concerning the edition, which Zahr·dka 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 Jan·?ek’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 — BartÛk’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
Jan·?ek’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
Peckov·’s contributions. Those soloists, the tenor in particular, have the
lion’s share of the solo work, but Jan MartinÌk 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 ‘Agne?e Boûij’(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 ‘Agne?e Boûij’
(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
B?lohl·vek. 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

image_description=Benjamin Grosvenor [Photo courtesy of the BBC]
product_title=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; Leoö Jan·?ek: Glagolitic Mass (September 1927 version).
product_by=Benjamin Grosvenor (piano); Hibla Gerzmava (soprano); Dagmar Peckov· (mezzo-soprano); Stefan Vinke (tenor); Jan MartinÌk (bass); David Goode (organ); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson); BBC Symphony Orchestra ; Ji?i B?lohl·vek (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday 15 July 2011.
product_id=Above: Benjamin Grosvenor [Photo courtesy of the BBC]