Edward Gardner conducts the BBCSO at the opening night of the BBC Proms
Edward Gardner conducts the BBCSO at the opening night of the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

It must be tricky choosing an encore for the high-profile opening night of the BBC Proms. For pianist Igor Levit, aware that the concert was being relayed live on radio and television, here was an opportunity. A man known to hold strong political views, he very softly played the main theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, also known as the European anthem. Close-ups on TV revealed he was wearing an EU pin on his lapel.

A political statement at the BBC Proms is a godsend for publicity, even when it is made as sotto voce as this. The concert may have been a less than thrilling affair, but suddenly the season seemed to be starting out of the blocks with a sense of purpose.

The opening night programme followed the standard Proms formula. A short premiere put new music into the frame. Tom Coult’s St John’s Dance, a BBC commission, took the medieval dancing sickness as its starting-point for an eight-minute crescendo of contagious rhythmic agitation, not too long, not too demanding.

Levit’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 was not at all what one might have expected from his Beethoven sonata cycle at Wigmore Hall. There he had been fiery and rough-edged. Here he looked to the music’s inner soul, lighting upon moments of intimate self-communing. The intention was good, but in the huge arena of the Royal Albert Hall it did not work, with the piano sometimes barely audible at the back of the hall.

Every opening night needs a big choral work to finish. In John Adams’s 70th birthday year, his Harmonium was an obvious choice. Written in 1981, this relatively early work proposes an unlikely meeting between minimalism and the searching poetry of John Donne and Emily Dickinson, a foretaste of how Adams would take the minimalist style in a new, more expressive direction. The combined BBC Proms Youth Choir and BBC Symphony Chorus fielded a huge number of voices and welcome exactness of ensemble. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the outset of its long summer stint at the Proms, roused itself with some panache under Edward Gardner.

This does not look the most ambitious of Proms seasons, but with a decent clutch of premieres and programming on the Reformation and the Russian Revolution, it has plenty of variety in store.

To September 9, bbc.co.uk/proms

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