Saturday 16 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (1)

Prom No.1, or, Adjusting to the Acoustic

By my calculation I haven't prommed since August 2007 when I was in the Arena for a wonderful performance under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras of Handel's Jeptha. Prior to that, I had only previously prommed once, earlier I think that season, for a concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the only work in which I can remember was a Bartok Piano Concerto. Since then I've attended two other Proms, sitting in the Circle for the ENO performance of War and Peace, and in the Stalls for the premiere of Salonen's Piano Concerto. On both of those occasions I had real problems with the acoustic which have led me not to have going back high on my list.

Yet, the moment this year's guide was published I was tempted to change my mind because of the line-up of the opening weekend. Unlike my brother I rather like Liszt, and have long wanted to hear the Piano Concertos live. I also adore Rossini, and performances of William Tell don't come around very often. Finally, what classical musical devotee could pass up the opportunity to hear a work that apparently has the most complicated xylophone solo in the repertoire (I refer of course to Brian's Gothic Symphony coming up on Sunday). Despite all these attractions, I dithered. By the time I'd decided to take the plunge all the Weekend Passes for the Arena (where I'd intended to Prom) were sold out, so I had to go with the Gallery.

The combination of standing for a concert, plus the Royal Albert Hall acoustic does take a bit of getting used to. At the end of a long week, it is hard work staying upright especially when you're so far away from the performers. Fortunately, in the Gallery one could lie down if one wanted to – many people bring rugs – and there are helpful railings to take some of the weight, but sore legs do at times threaten to distract one from the music. Then there are, for me, acoustical issues. Generally speaking the sound is very good and balance between the different components was not a problem. But while at odd moments, especially in the Janacek, I was enveloped by sound, at other times, I felt just a bit too far away. I will be really interested to see if familiarity over the next two days removes this.

On then, finally, to Prom No.1 itself. The main forces on stage were the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor Jiri Belohlavek. They were joined by BBC New Generation Artist Benjamin Grosvenor making his Proms debut in Liszt's Piano Concerto No.2, and a quartet of soloists and organist David Goode in Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.

The concert however began with a new BBC commission (lasting all of 3 minutes) by Judith Weir, entitled Stars, Night, Music and Light. Apparently she had been offered the opportunity to write a piece using the rich array of forces which are required for the Janacek. A piece lasting 3 minutes is rather difficult to get much of a hold on since it's over almost before it begins. I think it may have been the case that I was getting used to the sound of the hall – it's a real struggle in the Gallery to make out words from the choir (although interestingly I found this less so in the Janacek). Whatever the cause the piece, I think the first Weir I have heard live, did not leave me wanting to dash out and acquaint myself with her wider output.

Brahms's Academic Festival Overture which followed, with the addition of Malcolm Sargent's arrangement of the Latin text also seemed a little ropey to me – but again I'm not sure if I am actually rather unfamiliar with the piece, or was still adjusting to the acoustic. There was some beautiful playing but things didn't always seem completely together and it didn't sweep me off my feet. The problem of distance from the sound also troubled the end – I felt there ought to be a crescendo, and where I was I couldn't quite feel it.

Fortunately, the first half closed with a really beguiling performance of the Liszt. There were some beautiful solos from the various sections of the orchestra, and Grosvenor is my kind of pianist. One of those virtuousos who works an effortless magic, especially in the dreamy slow sections. Waves of cascading notes left me marvelling. Belohlavek balanced soloist and orchestra perfectly. Just occasionally towards the close I would have liked a bit more weight from the piano, but I would not have had it at the expense of the beauty of Grosvenor's playing. Just for a bonus he also gave us a fabulous encore (according to The Guardian one of Brahms's Hungarian Dances arranged by Georges Cziffra).

After the interval came the Janacek. The only other time I heard this piece was under Sir Charles Mackerras at the Edinburgh Festival. I made a terrible error (which I have never since repeated) of sitting near the back of the Usher Hall stalls under the overhang which seriously muted the sound. Here, I continued to find that the problem was not so much one of muting as of being a bit too distant – and yet odd things did envelop me, notably the end of the organ solo. But just getting to hear the piece live again is a wonderful experience. There's a kind of extraordinary life and energy it seems to me in Janacek's music, and nothing else sounds quite the way he does. All the exposed solos, especially in wind and brass, were spot on, and the choir floated some beautiful sequences out through the hall. In another sense though, it was rather a good object lesson of the vagaries of the hall's acoustics (at least from my eyrie). That is, where Hibla Gerzmava's soprano was full and rich, the tenor, Stefan Vinke, seemed either smothered or a little strained. I actually think he was singing very finely – but again the acoustic was not doing him any favours. Similarly, the close of the organ solo (excellently brought off by David Goode) was overpowering, but I wanted and didn't get the same feeling from piercing opening Introduction and the concluding Intrada.

Overall, getting to hear the Liszt and the Janacek live definitely outweighed the acoustical niggles, but I'm hoping to find a slightly more central vantage point for Rossini's William Tell, and that the tenor issue won't reoccur, otherwise it could be a long night.

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