BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

Italians open first weekend on a high note

No matter what the challenges are, the sheer size of the BBC Proms always seems to play to their strength. In a year when financial cutbacks mean that only a limited number of the world’s top orchestras are on the road, the result could have been lacklustre. But no: the BBC Proms have responded by filling the space with an imaginative season of mostly modest attractions.

Given the media attention at the start, kicking off the season in the right spirit has become ever more important. Friday’s opening night did its best to meet all the BBC’s current priorities. A new work to show support for living composers? Check. A young soloist to make sure a fresh face is smiling out of the television screen? Check. A big choral work to impress the live audience at the Royal Albert Hall? Check.

The centrepiece was a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2 by the youngest soloist ever to appear at the Proms, Benjamin Grosvenor. He made the entire concerto feel like a scherzo – light, playful, every note precisely in place and scrupulously supported by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jirí Bélohlávek, but it was all rather underpowered for this big hall. What a contrast with the grand and splashy Daniel Barenboim in the same concerto a few weeks ago. But the 19-year-old English pianist came back for a scintillating encore, hands flashing across the keyboard in a virtuoso arrangement of one of Brahms’ Hungarian dances.

Unusually for Judith Weir, her new four-minute choral fanfare, Stars, Night, Music and Light was of indeterminate character. Nor was Malcolm Sargent’s arrangement of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture as uplifting as it might have been. So, it was good the second half was given over to Janácek’s life-enhancing Glagolitic Mass. Bélohlávek is not a conductor who likes to let himself go, but he certainly knows his native Czech music. The inner reaches of Janácek’s orchestra teemed with detail and there was high-class singing from the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and a fine quartet.

The first Proms weekend seems to have become the occasion for a big opera each year, and few are bigger than Guillaume Tell, Rossini’s four-and-a-half-hour operatic telling of the William Tell legend. Saturday’s performance was given in the original French by the visiting Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome, conducted by Antonio Pappano. With Michele Pertusi as a William Tell short on charisma and Malin Byström a less-than-engaging Mathilde, it was left to John Osborn in the eye-wateringly high tenor role of Arnold to deliver the vocal thrills, aside from Patricia Bardon and Matthew Rose outstanding in two of the smaller roles. The real excitement, though, came from Pappano and his excellent Santa Cecilia forces, who gave a blistering performance that never let up for a single minute of Rossini’s epic. The honours of this first Proms weekend go to the Italians.

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