The 2019 BBC Proms season has opened with two days of music from Bohemia’s woods and fields, not to mention legends and, somewhat tenuously, churches. Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, its title and language derived from early Slavic scripts, shares an aching tonal blare with the composer’s late operas. This is unsurprising since his infatuation with the younger (and unavailable) Kamila Stösslová coincided with them all and the musical language of his elder years commingles heartbreak and joy.

Karina Canellakis © Chris Christodoulou
Karina Canellakis
© Chris Christodoulou

What links a Mass to earthly passions? When an avowed atheist is composing it, everything. It’s no surprise that Janáček chose to set a defunct language because for him the text was not only a template for composition – the choral equivalent of sonata form – but also a vessel into which he poured both his theatrical instincts and his most profound personal feelings. That is why the Glagolitic Mass packs such an emotional punch. It is less a religious statement than a romantic odyssey, and as one man’s private fantasy it has a happy ending. En route there are ghostly calls (“Věruju” – ‘I believe’ – sounding a world away from Christian affirmation), bickering villagers, a kick-ass organ Allegro (flamboyantly played by Peter Holder on the great Albert Hall instrument) and a joyous orchestral Intrada.

The performance under American conductor Karina Canellakis was magnificently stirring, led as it was by an ideal quartet of idiomatic singers and delivered by the BBC’s choral forces with such electric discipline that they could be forgiven for sounding a touch too Anglican. The soloists took us to Moravia while the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus stayed in the home counties; yet as twinning experiments go it was a meeting of minds. Canellakis chose to perform the final published version of the Mass rather than either of the recent scholarly editions, and her emphatic account made it hard to take issue with the decision.

BBC Prom 1 © Chris Christodoulou
BBC Prom 1
© Chris Christodoulou

The Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian, technically assured yet with a flayed tonal quality that haunts the ear, gave a searing account of the dominant solo line. She is set to be the Royal Opera’s Jenůfa next season. This brilliant performance showed why. Ladislav Elgr and Jan Martiník, both Czech, were the ideal tenor and bass soloists, and Liverpool’s own Jennifer Johnston sounded completely at home in their company during the mezzo’s limited contributions.

While the RAH-friendly Glagolitic Mass has become a Proms regular in the years since Sir Henry Wood premiered in in 1930, Dvořák’s 1896 tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel was making a surprisingly overdue Proms debut. Its half-hour duration comprises brief episodes of charm and Bohemian perfumes, and while it races in places a surprising number of its sections are gentle and reflective. Although a melodic work, in mood not unlike a jumbo-sized Slavonic Dance, the work’s romanticism is more about local colour than big tunes so it’s hard to come away whistling the best bits. Happily, Canellakis is an elegant conductor who invests so much in the music and inhabits its lilts and thrills with her whole demeanour. She commanded the BBC Symphony Orchestra with every fibre of her being, and effortlessly drew together the wandering strands of a score that meanders excessively after the halfway point until a fanfare brings its threads back together ahead of Dvořák’s assertive finale.

Karina Canellakis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Karina Canellakis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou

The concert, and thus the entire Proms season, had begun with a new commission in honour of the 50th anniversary of the first manned trip to the Moon. Long is the Journey, Short is the Memory by the Canadian composer Zosha di Castri is a 15-minute piece for choir and orchestra that opens with high percussion notes above a baleful tuba before setting poetic fragments to music that on first hearing sounded derivative. It was hard not to think of Ligeti’s Lux aeterna (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) during early passages, nor of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé elsewhere, together with assorted insect noises, busy, splattering pizzicato passages and yowling brass interjections. It all felt remarkably earthly. A quarter-hour of silence would have been a lot more lunar.

****1