First Night of the Proms

Rebecca Franks heads to the Royal Albert Hall for the First Night of the Proms 2011

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Rossini’s four-hour opera William Tell and Havergal Brian’s two-hour Gothic Symphony were on the programme for the first weekend of the Proms: it’s no wonder our Proms diarist Nick Shave needed to save up all his energy for those musical marathons. So I volunteered to pop over to the Royal Albert Hall on Friday evening for the First Night to take up his seat.

With the hall packed and the Prommers eager, the scene was set for the start of the 2011 season. It’s a funny creature, the First Night: it needs to set the tone for the eight weeks of concerts to come but still act as a satisfying evening in itself. A choral blockbuster is traditional First Night fare, although in recent years Proms director Roger Wright has offered a tasting menu of music and composers to follow. This year, we had a mixture of the two: a new commission, a spot of anniversary Liszt and a 20th-century choral-orchestral masterpiece. The programme of Weir, Brahms, Liszt and Janáček looked odd on paper but, it transpired, worked in concert.

First up, that commission. Judith Weir was in the hot seat, with her Stars, Night, Music and Light – a setting of words by George Herbert. Scored for near-on the same forces as Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, it was a curious musical soundbite of a piece, a brief blaze of orchestral and choral sound praising ‘Music and light’. If that was the season fanfare, Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture felt like the start of the concert proper. Robust fare, it was too, with a Proms twist in the form of a chorus added by Sir Malcolm Sargent including the final line: 'Long live music colleges!'

Cue the Steinway piano to be rolled on, and the first Prommers’ ‘heave-ho’ with the lifting of the lid. Now we were off. And about to step on stage was Benjamin Grosvenor (right), the Harry Potter of the piano world, for his coming-of-age concert. The 19-year-old British pianist was, after all, making history by becoming the youngest ever soloist at the First Night.

Expectations were high. Grosvenor was the youngest ever BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist back in 2004. A few months ago he became the first British pianist to be signed by Decca since the era of Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Peter Katin. And with his first solo recital album for that label already gathering excellent reviews, the pressure was on. That’s not forgetting the small matter of tackling Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto in front of 5,000 Royal Albert Hall goers, not to mention those tuning in by radio or TV.

And, if there was a smidgen of devilish glee missing from his Liszt, his magical sensitivity and otherworldly touch more than made up for it. Those languorous opening piano arpeggios were spellbinding, his daring pianissimos seemed to have those 5,000 listeners leaning in to catch every pearly note. And his encore was dazzling: a Cziffra arrangement of a Brahms Hungarian Dance. Grosvenor looked completely at home on that stage; let’s hope it’s the first Proms appearance of many.

From Romantic Liszt we were whisked away into the strange world of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. Janáček envisaged the piece's subject as an outdoor cathedral with stars for candles; its inclusion neatly continuing the imagery of the evening. Looking up to the Albert Hall ceiling, with its suspended white mushrooms, I couldn’t help wishing that it could open up to reveal the starry night sky. We were treated to excellent soloists, vivid singing from the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, and playing teeming with life from its companion orchestra under Jiří Bělohlávek, but the piece belonged to organist David Goode. Sitting at the centre of it all, at the Royal Albert Hall organ, he pulled off the wacky solo organ movement with great panache. While the concert as a whole might not quite have attained Janáček or Weir's starry heights, it gave a tantalising glimpse of the glitter to come in the rest of the season.

 Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine

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