First Night of the 2010 Proms | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
First Night of the 2010 Proms
Choirs and orchestra blaze, but the opening-night epic is let down by its soloists
Numerologists may have been fretting over whether Proms forces could match the apocryphal thousand of the mightiest Eighth Symphony's 1910 world premiere, which Mahler feared would turn into a "catastrophic Barnum and Bailey show". With nothing like 350 in the children's chorus, for a start, not a chance. Anyway, the resplendent sound produced by the choristers who filled the seats either side and in front of the Albert Hall organ, as well as by the players of Jiři Bĕlohlávek's BBC Symphony Orchestra on the platform and up in the gallery, made the question of numbers - circa 600, for the record - pale into insignificance. The problem that haunted me throughout the evening was that of the soloists. They have to be a magnificent eight, and they usually are. When they're not, and they weren't last night, the epic journey's in trouble.
In Mahler's headlong Part One, a burning and more or less unanimous hymn to the creator spirit, you fret only briefly when a voice in the ensemble gets out of true and one of the two sopranos can't really cap the line. And from where I was sitting (centre back in the semicircle of stalls, when I should have been standing - and will be, on less packed evenings - down in the arena) that was a handicap. Anyone remember the luminous giant voice of Alessandra Marc, once indispensible in this symphony? That, or Christine Brewer's, is the sort of sound you need back there, and only mezzo Stephanie Blythe (pictured second from the left below) really had it. Let;'s face it, Mahler as one of the greatest opera conductors of his time was writing unashamedly for divas (and divos) here. And Colorado-born Mardi Byers didn't have what it took. If she'd been better, I might not have been troubled by irrelevant thoughts like, if only they'd found an African American soprano - and I could think of two who've been terrific Aidas - the wider world to whom the BBC Two broadcast presumably reached out might have thought our First Night a little more all-inclusive.
Part Two, where the chain of voices from the depths to the heights needs to lead us upwards to Mahler's - and his inspiration, Goethe's - image of the Eternal Feminine, brought another random thought: why no Brits in the solo line-up? Wouldn't Bryn Terfel and Brindley Sherratt from tomorrow's Meistersinger have done a much better job than Hanno Müller-Brachmann and Tomasz Konieczny? Here it wasn't a question of volume and amplitude, for the German baritone and the Polish bass both came across loud and clear, only of struggles with Mahler's awkward upper ranges. Expressive pointing of the text, which Müller-Brachmann certainly managed along with a handsome mid-register, was one thing; but hitting the heights is equally important. Last-minute replacement heldentenor Stefan Vinke could, with a bit of effort, but it was never a rich or lovely sound. Important? Yes, because in Blythe's brief solo, everything came together and for a moment I was on the edge of my seat witnessing a moment of pure, urgent communication. None of the three soloists I haven't mentioned, though acceptable, was on the same level, and it showed.
There were, thankfully, a few more of those eternal moments from choirs and orchestra. Bringing together BBC Symphony, Crouch End and Sydney choirs as well as choristers from St Paul's, Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral might not have been a guarantee of anything more than a big sound; but they all found the right fervour in their full-throttle unisons, for once truly antiphonal in this arena, and luminous delicacy to Mahler's more relaxed moments of quiet play. From the BBC Symphony Orchestra, too, the hushed moments were the best, as so often in the Albert Hall vasts. Bĕlohlávek knows by now how to get his players to project solo lines into the space. Naughty atoms in the first movement's twilight zones ricocheted around the hall; as Mahler leaves the orchestra to imagine Goethe's romantic landscape of trees and crags at the beginning of Part Two, horn choir, shrill piccolo and plangent oboe conjured spirits from the vasty deep. And audiences have to learn to forgive the split trumpet notes if the basic intention is good, though the treble brass sounded over-fierce from my coign of vantage.
Did Bĕlohlávek have the measure of Mahler's biggest, most operatic symphonic act? In recent Barbican seasons, he's managed superbly with near-comparable long hauls in the Third and Ninth Symphonies; here, it felt somehow less organic. The solo voices as trustees of the narrative certainly didn't help, but between a rapt approach to the very Viennese soaring of Goethe's Mater Gloriosa and the radiant thunder of the epilogue, I felt a certain loss of tension and direction. No doubt about it, though: this is the place to hear massed forces at their best celebrate the Faustian apotheosis. As celestial brass added their voices to the final fervour, all disappointments were left behind. And then, I'm afraid, they all came flooding back again. Not the greatest of Mahler Eights by any means, but it's still the best possible way to launch the Proms in the composer's big birthday year.
- Read theartsdesk's recommendations for the 2010 BBC Proms
- Next instalment in Bĕlohlávek's Mahler series with the BBCSO is the Sixth Symphony at the Barbican on 2 February 2011
- Listen to the Radio 3 broadcast of this concert on the BBC iPlayer for the next week
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