First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

It’s a grand blockbuster on a biblical theme, but it’s by no means part
of conventional British choral tradition Elgar, who was still alive when this
was written in 1931, could not have tried anything like it at the Three Choirs
Festival, at that time, and Benjamin Britten, I suspect, would have cringed at
its excess.

But think back to Facade: an Entertainment, (read
more here
) with which Walton burst to notoriety barely six years before the
BBC commissioned him to write for orchestra of “not more than 15 players”.
Instead Walton created the extravaganza that is Belshazzar’s

The BBC SO trombones blasted a single, savage wail. Did we hear the sound of
ancient Biblical trumpets? “Thus spake Isaiah”, sang the male chorus. but
the word “Isaiah” oscillated with oddly bluesy flourish. “How shall we
sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Oramo’s ear for quirky detail
highlighted how Walton adapted the zeitgeist of the Jazz Age to underline the
sense of dislocation the Hebrews felt in a new and alien world. The saxophone,
the angular percussion, the slithering swathes in the choral parts and even the
brass bands are there for a reason.

Christopher Maltman delivered the passage “Babylon was a great city”
with such ferocious bite that his voice bounced off the walls of the Royal
Albert Hall. The part is created completely without accompaniment to
demonstrate the austere values of the Hebrew God. The massed voices of the BBC
National Chorus of Wales, the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus were
impressive, but the heart of the cantata takes place in near silence. Maltman
described the mysterious Writing on the Wall in hushed, horrified tones. When
the choruses and orchestra resumed, the crosscurrents and interweaving they
made, literally, “a joyful noise”, complete with a merry, jaunty dance.

Jean Sibelius’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1906-7) may not be scored
for voice, but is highly theatrical nonetheless. Originally written as
incidental music for a play,the Suite (Opus 51) unfolds like a series of
miniature tone poems, each vividly expressive. The first ,”Oriental
Procession” sounds exotic in the way so much western music adopts Orientalism
for colour, but Oramo brought out its connection to other Sibelius works. The
prancing bell-like sounds reminded me of the “sleigh” music in which
Kullervo’s sister rides, clothed in finery on her fateful journey. The slow
movements, though, are even more poetic, particularly the haunting
“Solitude” with its melancholy part for solo flute. The dotted rhythms and
swirling lines suggest Nightride and Sunrise. The clarinet parts were
played sensually. Spoken words or sung text were rendered unnecessary in the
expressive beauty of Sibelius’s music.

The theatrical theme of this First Night of the Proms began with the
Overture to Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade (read
more here
) Oramo has been conducting Nielsen symphonies with the BBC SO for
some time, so this performance sparkled with vivacious charm and wit. Perhaps
they should do more music theatre. Dadaville, a premiere by Gary
Carpenter (b 1951) was disappointingly derivative, added perhaps to fill some
BBC quota of works that are newly written but not necessarily new. Fireworks as
part of performance might work in something more original, but not in this
case. Thankfully, Lars Vogt was a fine soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto
no 20 in D minor
(K. 466), well supported by Oramo and the BBC Symphony

All Proms are broadcast internationally, online and on demand on the BBC Proms Website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Sakari Oramo [Photo by Jan Olav Wedin]
product_title=First Night of the BBC Proms 2015, Royal Albert Hall, London 17th July 2015.
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Sakari Oramo [Photo by Jan Olav Wedin]