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PROM 1, Stravinsky, Chabrier, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Elgar, Brahms, Bruckner: 
Ailish Tynan (soprano); Alice Coote (mezzo); Stephen Hough, Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos); BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Jiří Bĕlohlávek. Royal Albert Hall, London, Friday, 17 July 2009 (CC)

Stravinsky Fireworks.

Chabrier Ode à la musique

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat, Op. 75


Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra


Brahms Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53

Bruckner Psalm 150

This was, it must be said, a rather strange way to kick off the 2009 Proms. The decision to segment the concert into three – and therefore to include two intervals – was a shaky one at best. It meant that in one, one-hour segment of the concert, there was only twenty minutes of music. The 20 minute Poulenc was book-ended by two twenty minute intervals. It also meant that the concert finished around 10:20 p.m. By the time the final Bruckner arrived, the opening Stravinsky seemed such a long time ago.

The idea was to introduce strands of this year’s Proms. Stephen Hough is performing all of Tchaikovsky’s works for piano and orchestra, while the Labèque sisters acted as representatives of the theme of multiple pianos. This will culminate in an all-piano day on 9 August 2009. The Elgar introduces 1934 as a turning point in British history: that was the year Britten, Holst and Delius died. So much to digest.

Stravinsky’s brief Fireworks of 1908, was the four-minute sparkler that, along with the Scherzo fantastique, introduced the composer to Diaghilev and, by extension, the Ballets Russes. This is an effervescent bon-bon, to be sure, and Bĕlohlávek made sure the orchestra made the most of its Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like antics. The orchestra was well disciplined - especially the brass. Outgoing and colourful, it seemed the perfect way in to the 115th Season of the Henry Wood Proms.

The idea of including Chabrier’s Ode à la musique was a strong one. This was the first Proms performance of the piece. Using a smaller orchestra than the Stravinsky but including soprano soloist (Tynan) and female voices, this was utter delight, right from its gentle opening. All credit to the choral sopranos, who controlled their lines with significant expertise. Ailish Tynan sang beautifully - although lower in her register she could present as tremulous - projecting perfectly to my seat at the back of the stalls. A great way to experience this little-known piece for the first time.

Stephen Hough has enjoyed tremendous success with his Hyperion recording of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. Continuing his penchant for cycles, we heard the first instalment of his Tchaikovsky traversal, in the shape of the Third Concerto (E flat, Op. 75). We only have the first movement of this piece, so it exists as a torso. The material hails from a Symphony in E flat that the composer worked on in 1892-3 – a “completion” does exist by Taneyev (or was it Bogatyrev?), who fleshed out the discarded symphony’s second and fourth movements for this purpose. Musically, this is far from top-flight Tchaikovsky. Remember those obscure Romantic piano concertos that Turnabout issued on LP? Well, it’s like one of those, but one that was not quite good enough to make the series. Inspiration is low and the music frequently lacks direction. Hough played very well – notes were not a problem, not even in the huge cadenza – but to be sat there on the First Night while he played his completist card felt more than a little uncomfortable. Hough’s tone, too could be harsh. No doubting his general musicianship, nor his technique, but listening to this was hard work.

So to the first interval, and the addition of yet another Steinway to the stage for Poulenc’s 1932 Concerto for Two Pianos. The Labèque sisters have pretty much cornered the market in piano duo/duet, and here was the evidence as to why. They play with preternatural synchronicity – yet, interestingly, they have distinct personalities. The helter-skelter antics of the first movement were magnificently rendered with pianistic passion aplenty. It also proved beyond a doubt that Bĕlohlávek is a fine, on-the-ball accompanist. Katia, in particular, was über-spiky. Most importantly, this was stylistically exact, with tunes cheekily rendered. The slow movement parodies Mozart, but what was most notable here was that it was hypnotic, and that there was not a hint of the twee music-box about it. There was an encore - the two Labèques now seated at one piano: a polka by Adolfo Berio.

The Poulenc only lasts around twenty minutes, but there we were again, leaving our seats with a distinct sense of déjà vu. But, my, was it worth coming back later. The performance of Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) was tremendous. Never has the Straussian tint to the opening been so clearly painted, themes leaping ecstatically like English Don Juans. Against this, pools of calm offered respite of the highest beauty. Bĕlohlávek paced the performance perfectly, unwilling to dawdle in any sentimental manner. A special word should go to violist Norbert Blume’s contributions in the second episode.

Despite the presence of stars such as the Labèques, it was Alice Coote’s delicious mezzo that lingers most vividly in the memory. Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody was given a magnificent reading. Bĕlohlávek set the scene with darkly brooding sounds, and if Coote’s is not the darkest voice I have heard per se, she sang with the utmost sensitivity and with exceptional breath control.

Finally, Bruckner. The Psalm 150 is not his best-known choral work. It appears to have been given at the Proms only once, back in 1980, so it has had a long wait to return. Ailish Tynan had a fair wait to return to the stage, too – she’d last been heard of way back in the Chabrier. For many, this Bruckner must have summed up what the Proms is all about – huge choruses at full pelt, exciting large orchestra build-ups, blazing brass, a soaring solo soprano. It worked well, finding the BBC Chorus in fine fettle. Bĕlohlávek ensured excellent differentiation in the fugal passages.

So the concert certainly had its more memorable moments, but the end impression was one of bits, strung together. Good to hear the BBC Chorus and Orchestra on such strong form, and to hear such talented soloists, though.

Colin Clarke

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