Proms 2011: Wagner, Liszt, Volans and Brahms

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We sent our German correspondent Stella Lorenz to experience the magic of the Proms for the first time

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For this correspondent, there were two world premieres yesterday in the Royal Albert Hall. Firstly, of course, Kevin Volans’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a bizarre and fascinating piece of contemporary piano music. Secondly, it was my very first Prom – and what a fantastic experience it was. On first entering the hall, I was dazzled – the pillars, the size and shape, the red velvet, the golden ornaments! I instantly felt a bit royal myself.

Being an organised and overcorrect German, it baffled me a little when people stood up in the middle of the concert, happily chatting away in the short gaps between the pieces in the first half, the members of the orchestra retuning their instruments – a hubbub that would never occur in concerts at home, where everyone would stay calmly and quietly seated to wait for the new piece to start. The concept of the hall did fascinate me, though. Having a space where people can stand (or, later that night, lie down) right in front of the stage made everything look so much more relaxed. It reminded me more of a rock gig rather than a stiff (German) concert.

The music itself was outstanding. With Jiří Bělohlávek unwell, the baton was passed to Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, who did a brilliant job leading the orchestra. After a fine entrance in the form of Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Liszt’s contrastingly gloomy La Notte, one of the Funeral Odes reflecting the death of two of his children, was beautifully played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with the dynamics, in particular, perfectly controlled. Admittedly, some string entries were late, those of the timpani too early – maybe a result of the short-notice switch of conductors?

Volans’s much anticipated Piano Concerto No. 3, played by Irish pianist Barry Douglas and especially composed for this evening, didn’t fail to impress (me, at least). I was reminded of a Japanese film score to one of these surreal animation movies, and was pleasantly surprised by this jazz-influenced, abstract music, sometimes rather threatening, then very calming and mysterious. For the strings, the mostly sharp, almost percussive pizzicato parts and high registered strumming required sophisticated fingering.

Then, after the interval, Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 proved a worthy end to the evening. In a highly polished performance, Dausgaard’s entries were impeccably implemented by the orchestra, while leader Stephen Bryant’s flawless violin solo in the second movement was outstandingly clear.

I enjoyed my first Prom so much, that I’m now a little ashamed I had never managed to go before. The relaxed atmosphere was overwhelming and seeing everyone enjoy the concert – either sitting down, standing or lying on the floor – was a joy to watch and made me realise what I miss in German concert halls sometimes.

Prom 51:

Volans: Piano Concerto No. 3
Wagner: Overture to Die Meistersinger
Liszt: La notte
Brahms: Symphony No. 1
Barry Douglas (piano); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
 

Stella Lorenz is currently studying at Marburg University in Germany; a keen cellist, she has spent the last month working at the BBC Music Magazine offices in Bristol