The First Night of the Proms isn’t so formulaic as the Last, but nonetheless it runs to something like a pattern – usually starting with a bright, decisive and (important this) not overlong new work by someone credible and British, followed by a solid piece of standard repertoire and something signifiying one of the year’s themes. Often an anniversary.
When the Proms kicked off last week the new piece was by Tom Coult, whose St John’s Dance was if anything too short. Based on the medieval curiosity of unstoppable, involuntary dancing which apparently afflicted large numbers of people and could last for weeks, it was a busy, energised sequence of embryonic dances with far more material than its six-minute running time could handle. Still, better to leave your audience wanting more than getting bored.
John Adams’s enormous choral work Harmonium – done here with a gargantuan choir alongside the BBCSO under Edward Gardner – was the topical piece, marking the composer’s 70th birthday; but as usual I found this classic of 1980s American minimalism baffling in its choice of texts: a shotgun marriage of John Donne and Emily Dickinson that never flourishes.
As for standard repertoire, there was Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto but in a decidedly non-standard reading by the soloist Igor Levit who is the hot young pianist of the moment – individual, distinctive, tending to extreme speeds but immaculate. It was his encore, though, that stole the show: a keyboard transcript of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy that turned the muscularity of the original into reflective melancholy. A lament for the absurdity of Brexit – how could it be otherwise? – it made a clever, tender and persuasive statement.
For politically charged music-making, though, it was outclassed by Daniel Barenboim who also graced the opening weekend of the Proms with his orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle. They played English works: a masterly if sprawling new orchestral epic by Sir Harrison Birtwistle called Deep Time, and a silken, super-elegant and fascinatingly un-English account of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony that reaffirmed Barenboim’s longstanding love affair with the composer.
But beyond that, it became the pretext for an ad hoc podium address about the evils of isolationism, the virtues of a European common culture and the need for mutual respect – which Barenboim then illustrated with a cheeky treat: the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March, normally done on the Proms Last Night with swank and swagger, but done here with eloquence, refinement, love. It was a sermon in an encore. Thunderously well received.
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