By Martin Kettle, The Guardian
With a bumper musical programme comprising something new, something familiar, a star soloist and a big relatively neglected English choral piece ideal for the Albert Hall, the BBC Proms are back fully armed for the 75-concert summer season with a what was in many respects a classic First Night from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their new chief conductor Sakari Oramo. A Finnish flag was waved in the arena to greet him, to which Oramo responded with a little wave.
As ever, the eight weeks of the 2013 Proms season are full of programming connections, and this first concert had a few all of its own. Julian Anderson’s short newly commissioned choral piece Harmony set a text by the 19th century English mystic Richard Jefferies, the music emerging hesitantly out of silence then flowering and spiralling to a moment of rustic revelation before descending back to earth.
After the interval in Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, there was a far grander and extended version of the same kind of transcendental vision, in sea-related settings from Walt Whitman. An imaginative cross reference, first of many more this season.
No Proms season would be complete without its centenaries too – Wagner, 200 years old this year, is being sumptuously served this summer but Verdi, his fellow operatic bicentenarian gets unaccountably shorter shrift. Neither of them featured in this opening night, ceding place instead to two composers born in 1913, Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes – a nautical connection with the Vaughan Williams this time as well as an English one – were given a tangy and spare account by Oramo, with a frenzied storm giving way to a brightly illuminated seascape.
Paganini’s famous 24th violin caprice provided the next piece of interconnection, with Stephen Hough delivering Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on Paganini’s theme with characteristic sparkle and dazzle before returning to the caprice for Lutoslawski’s much less often played but excitingly surreal and fantasy-filled Variations on the same theme. There was not a trace of keyboard warhorse in Hough’s brightly coloured treatment of the Rachmaninov, instead almost a chamber music feel to the score, with delicious interplay between Hough and a succession of woodwind and string soloists. No needless wallow in the celebrated 18th variation either, with Hough limpid and restrained and Oramo, keenly attentive throughout, allowing the orchestra only briefly off the leash.
Rachmaninov played his own second piano concerto in the first half of the World premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony in 1910 – another connection – but in this Prom there was no doubt the Vaughan Williams symphony was the bedrock work of the evening.
Few symphonists have ever burst open the world more upliftingly than Vaughan Williams does in his Whitmanesque summons – “Behold, the sea” – at the start of this sustained choral symphony, in which the orchestra only rarely plays on its own. When it does, at the end of the slow movement, there is a marvellous vision of the kind of composer Vaughan Williams would eventually become once he had sloughed off the influences of Elgar and Parry that are so plentiful in these settings, in which the sea evolves from a purely nautical presence into a large mystical metaphor.
The symphony is often felt, with some justice, to sprawl, but Oramo held the whole together most impressively. It may not be the composer’s greatest achievement, but Oramo, his orchestra and his massive chorus made the best possible case for it. A great start to the Proms season – and in sweltering heat too.