BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London – review

A free Prom is one of the innovations of the BBC Proms 2013. With good-value standing places, radio and television broadcasts, and online streaming via the BBC’s iPlayer, access is hardly an issue for the Proms, but a free concert would be worthwhile, if it can be shown genuinely to have brought new faces along.

The Prom in question was the annual performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. A bust of the composer stared out grumpily next to the conductor’s podium (the best position is already occupied by the bust of Proms founder Henry Wood) and was a reminder that the symphony was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.

With the platform filled by the huge number of young musicians in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the stage was set for a concert on a massive scale. It opened inspiringly with Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, a 10-minute choral work of aspirational uplift, superbly sung here by the combined forces of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, Codetta and the Irish Youth Chamber Choir.

The central item – the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Frieze, a co-commission by the BBC, the Royal Philharmonic Society and the New York Philharmonic – worked less well. Asked to find a response to the Beethoven symphony, Turnage turned to Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze” and has woven a subtle skein of references to both the music and the art. But the ideas seemed less memorable than in other Turnage and its sense of direction less compelling (or perhaps the sheer number of players dulled the music’s colours?).

The performance of the Beethoven had tremendous drive. Vasily Petrenko, the conductor, set the symphony hurtling forwards and rarely let up, giving it a modern, aggressive edge that almost trumped the Turnage. There was some impressively crisp playing from the orchestra, but an awful lot of detail was lost on the way. Gerald Finley’s resonant baritone led a decent quartet of soloists (Ailish Tynan, Jennifer Johnston and Toby Spence) but the glory of the performance was again the choral singing. How about another choral spectacular for the NYO Prom next year?

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