mon 18/10/2021

First Night of the Proms, Hyde, BBCSO, Stasevska review - levitational ecstasies | reviews, news & interviews

First Night of the Proms, Hyde, BBCSO, Stasevska review - levitational ecstasies

First Night of the Proms, Hyde, BBCSO, Stasevska review - levitational ecstasies

Finn floats and ignites a well conceived programme back in the Royal Albert Hall

Dalia Stasevska condicts the BBC Symphony OrchestraAll images Chris Christodoulou for the BBC

Did absence from Albert’s colosseum from early September 2019 until now and a roof-raising finale hoodwink many of us into thinking Dalia Stasevska’s interpretation of Sibelius’s Second Symphony among the greats? Having listened to it again on the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer this morning, I'm convinced not; this was the real deal.

Without that guarantee, a BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form would not have entrusted its second Finn – Stasevska is its Principal Guest Conductor – with the music of a composer (their composer) its Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo has already presented with unsurpassable vividness. And this Sibelius Two was of equal energy, focus and fire, with a mind of its own, crowning a Proms quartet of opening-night works that fitted the bill to perfection.

You almost felt the Albert Hall should have been greeting us back in black and white for this year's Proms, like an audience returning after the Second World War. Many things were not quite the same: you ran the gamut of the exceedingly polite and welcoming folk at the doors asking to see your Covid vaccination certificate, masks were worn in seats, apparently optional – not the best of decisions when you’re located in batches all together – and while the platform was bigger, the Arena was much smaller, with what seemed like a smattering of Prommers around the big camera cordon. But the spirit was there at the start and so overwhelmingly at the final ovation. Elizabeth LlewellynIt was inspired to begin with soft levitational ecstasy rather than a fanfaring bang. Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music is one of those spiritual works which needs the Albert Hall halo around it; Stasevska made the BBCSO strings, on top form these days, glow and levitate supernaturally, capped by the beauty of leader Igor Yuzefovich’s secret raptures. Inevitably not that many of Shakespeare’s words from Act Five of The Merchant of Venice could be made out in the hall, but what impact from the 17 voices of the BBC Singers placed high behind the orchestra to the right, and what sounds from a quartet of soloists. Yes, it’s always impressive to hear the 16 singers Vaughan Williams requested, but nothing else was missed from this quartet of two established national treasures – soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn (pictured above) and tenor Allan Clayton, ringing out as ever in this space – and two younger artists, contralto Jess Dandy and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian.

They returned for the counterweight at the beginning of the second half (yes, we’re back to full programmes at the Proms). In When Soft Voices Die, a BBC co-commission shared with Help Musicians, the organisation which has done so much to help artists stay afloat in the last 16 months (keep on giving, please), James MacMillan reflects Vaughan Williams’ Shakespeare with settings of two poems by Shelley, moving upwards through the lower three voices in the evanescence of “The flower that smiles today” and moving on to the second poem, “Music, when soft voices die”, for affirmative ecstasy from the soprano, the quartet joining in the last quatrain. The shape is clear and well contrasted, with some anguish from the tenor, scalic calm from the contralto, but after the arresting opening murmurs of lower instruments, the work is pleasing but doesn’t seem to come from any deep place. Oddly, it was the most conventional piece of the evening’s four. Daniel Hyde at the Royal Albert Hall organThere’s no sense of placid familiarity with the mostly solemn strangeness of Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani, offering its own form of neo-Baroque without ever sounding like pastiche. What better than the Albert Hall King of Instruments for the apocalyptic summons, boldly mastered by Daniel Hyde (pictured above)? Stasevska managed to maintain string profile even in the most ethereal moments, and the challenge of togetherness with the soloist when the combined forces briefly romp was bracingly met.

Focus in big, sometimes muscly symphonic works isn’t easy in this notorious but so often rewarding acoustic. But the Stasevska impetus always held together. Her approach to Sibelius, on this evidence, is like Oramo’s: febrile, lithe and always moving forward – but it has its own brand of uplift; the feet rarely touch the ground. She always finesses details even in the haunting pizzicato of double-basses and cellos which launches the dark but noble mystery of a great and original slow movement; superb lugubrious and melancholy work here from bassoons and a very vocal first trumpet (Philip Cobb).Dalis Stasevska at the First Night of the PromsUltimately, the mark of a great conductor is how much extra he or she can pull out of the bag on the night; we felt it as the mysterious processional of the finale rose and burned, and again the second round of victorious fanfaring, Stasevska somehow sending the final chord ricocheting out into space before the cheers began. Top business as usual has never seemed more special.

Comments

Great to read your review, and it's obviously great that concerts with live audiences are back in action at The Proms (for now). Will you have more Proms reviews for TAD in the docket? Hopefully nothing happens to derail the season's proceedings. By eyeballing the crowd, how did the ratio of masked:unmasked people look to you? It also sounds as though there were quite a few empty seats, besides Petroc mentioning that the Arena was something like 1/2-full. One summer festival here on the radar requires masks at all times. From hearing the concert on iPlayer, in the RVW, I thought that Allan Clayton took the vocal Olympic gold among the 4 solo singers. I was a bit disappointed with the rather wide vibrato from Elizabeth Llewellyn, especially with happy memories of her quarantine Wigmore Hall recital in the memory. I rather preferred Jess Dandy's singing among the ladies.

Yes, Geo,, there will be plenty more Proms reviews on TAD - though not every night as, impressively, there's so much going on elsewhere. Non-mask-wearers, about a third. Audience was not distanced in the batches where we sat, though they seem to have left areas of empty seats. Very few sitting up top. The Arena, as I mentioned, is much smaller, with very few Prommers, though the usual crowd along the rail at the front. Liz Llewellyn's vibrato is offset by a luminous warmth live.

Why, in a symphonic concert, was the orchestra sunk in a blue crepuscular obscurity and obliged to use stand lights? Surely this is making life harder for the players who are having to cope with distancing and one string player to a desk. Why make it hard for them to see each other too? It must have been frustrating for the audience not to be able to see the performers clearly. Gimmicky TV production values! Despite these handicaps, the concert was magnificent. Brava tutti!

I do so agree with the comments about gimmicky lighting. At Sunday’s organ recital, two dazzling floodlights glared into our eyes from on top of the organ, whilst the organ itself was unlit. Have the lighting designers forgotten that there is now an audience in the Hall?

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