BBC Proms: First Night

BBC Proms: First Night
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
Dalia Stasevska, Daniel Hyde

Royal Albert Hall, 30 July 2021

And so, after two years’ absence, only partially relieved by last year’s shortened and audience-free Proms season, here we sat, to let the sound of music creep in our ears. Dalia Stasevska, the Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and director of last years’ Last Night, opened this year’s Proms season with a well-conceived programme of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, Poulenc’s dramatic Organ Concerto, a newly commissioned work by Sir James MacMillan and Sibelius’s Second Symphony. It was a night to remember, for many reasons.

The Serenade to Music was written to celebrate the 50th anniversary as a conductor of Proms founder Henry Wood. It was premiered by him at a jubilee concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1938. Originally intended for 16 soloists it was performed here in the later arrangement for four soloists and a choir (here, the BBC Singers). The text is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and depicts lovers overcome by the music of the spheres:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.”

It was an inspired choice to open the season, the reality of which only became clear a week or so before the event as England’s lockdown restrictions began to relax. The soloists were Elizabeth Llewellyn soprano (whose excessive vibrato interfered with her otherwise impressive voice), Jess Dandy contralto, Allan Clayton tenor, and Michael Mofidian baritone. The 17 choir singers were positioned well apart from each other in the south choir, to the side and above the orchestra. In the hall, they sounded attractively remote and ethereal, although this was lost in the BBC broadcasts where they sounded much louder.

Dalia Stasevska controlled the pace and volume beautifully, keeping the hushed atmosphere in balance with more dramatic passages. The orchestra was socially distanced from each other on an extended stage which projected about halfway into the arena, and into the first few rows of the stalls. In the hall, this gave an expansive acoustic spread to the sound but must have added to the complexities for players and the conductor alike.

This was followed by Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings, a Proms regular since 1957. Commissioned by an organ-playing Princess to perform in her own salon, it soon grew way beyond salon or Princess scale. The seven linked sections reflect the 17th-century North German Stylus phantasticus that culminated in the organ music of Buxtehude who, with Bach, hovered gently above the musical style, along with a staggering array of other musical influences, not least a trio that Nicholas de Grigny would be proud of. The soloist was Daniel Hyde who gave a magisterial performance. Credit also to Dalia Stasevska who, as well as luxuriating in the sensitive colours of the piece, allowed the organ to let rip when required. Too often conductors try to tone the organ sound down, but it should kill an orchestra with sheer volume. Orchestra and soloist both demonstrated exemplary use of articulation to allow the music to speak into the hall, and the broadcasting ether.

The use of the Royal Albert Hall in five events during the season reflects the 150th anniversary of the opening of the hall and the original incarnation of the famed Henry ‘Father’ Willis organ. Although it is capable of killing any orchestra, this performance also allowed a welcome insight into the range of gentle colours of the organ, something that dominates Poulenc’s writing with the registrations for a French Grand Organ added by the premier performer, Maurice Duruflé. The organ spends far more time playing gently melodic single lines of music than it does blowing everybody’s head off, although it certainly managed the latter. It is well worth watching the BBC TV broadcast to see close up the complexities of the organ, and the hear this very impressive performance. Credit also is due to timpanist Antoine Bedewi for his well-judged contribution.

After the interval, we heard the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s When Soft Voices Die, specially commissioned for the occasion by the BBC and the charity Help Musicians who have done so much to help this very troubled profession under the yoke of Covid and Brexit. The murmuring strings and harp took us straight back to the musical language of Vaughen Williams before the baritone voice reminded us with one of those distinctive little ornaments that this was James MacMillan.

It sets two short poems by Shelley: ‘The flower that smiles today’, and ‘Music when soft voices die’, and is a response to the idea of music coming back after a forced absence. It opens with the baritone reflecting on the brevity of life with the words ‘The flower that smiles today, tomorrow dies’. The tenor follows, bemoaning the short life of Love, Friendship and Love. The alto soloist lifts the mood, with an encouragement to ‘Make glad the day’. The key moment, and the one that made my companion cry, is the entry of the soprano with three high fortissimo cries of ‘Music : Music : Music . . . when soft voices die’.

The composers note explains: “Although there is a wistful melancholy in both poems they nevertheless remind us of the things that are profoundly important to us, especially in times of trial and loss – beauty, virtue, friendship, love and music. When these things are taken away from us, such as happened during COVID, we are reminded just how precious and indispensable they truly are”.

The First Night concluded with the 50th Proms appearance of Sibelius’s 1903 Second Symphony. If the ghost of Buxtehude hovered over Poulenc, that of Beethoven permeated Sibelius’s masterpiece. David Grimley’s eloquent programme notes explored the various interpretations of this powerful work, which was composed, not in Finland, but in Italy. Whether it is the culmination of the Romantic Symphonic tradition or an early marker of the early 20th-century modernism, under the baton of Dalia Stasevska (who is married to Sibelius’s great-grandson) it became a very personal statement. Clearly deeply emotionally involved in all that it portrayed, Stasevska created a magical musical world, not least of the granite, forest and lakes of her homeland.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra were in excellent form. Amongst many star moments in all the pieces, special mention must go to the leader Igor Yuzefovich, violist Norbert Blume, cellist Susan Monks, Michael Cox flute, Alison Teale & Imogen Smith oboes, Julie Price & Susan Frankl bassoons, and Philip Cobb trumpet.

As far as the practicalities of a post-lockdown event, the audience was greeted on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall with checks on Covid vaccination or test certificates: a condition of entry. We were told that face coverings were ‘strongly recommended’, although about a third of the audience chose to ignore that advice. There was no social distancing in the hall.