Nielsen's Maskarade Overture should have been the ideal way to launch the 2015 BBC Proms. In the festival's 120th year, one would expect that the first concert would begin with a bang. While the actual fireworks came after Gary Carpenter's Dadaville, the musical fireworks were saved for the end.

Sakari Oramo conducting the BBCSO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo conducting the BBCSO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The First Night of the Proms is always a piecemeal affair, with the chosen repertoire a nod to the various strands of programming which run throughout the season. 2015 is Carl Nielsen's 150th anniversary year, hence the season-opener. It seemed a shame that the work opened in such a polite manner, particularly given that its end was spirited. While the ensemble was tight and precise – suiting Nielsen's textural clarity – the BBC Symphony Orchestra's performance seemed to be lacking in spark.

Gary Carpenter's Dadaville would have been a better way to kick off proceedings. Taking its name from an artwork by Max Ernst, the piece was inspired as much by the notes 'D' and 'A' which make up 'Dada' as the artistic movement itself. The notes act as reference points, providing a solid foundation for a series of contrasting episodes. Ranging from Ravel to Ginastera, these are underpinned by infectious rhythms and attractively orchestrated, with some excellent parts for individual players: principal trombone Helen Vollam and saxophonist Tim Holmes revelled in their solos. The disparate ideas gradually coalesced, driving the piece towards its end: a brief reference to the start of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and that was it. Colourful, engaging and witty: perfectly pitched for the First Night, and which deserves to be heard in its rightful place as concert opener.

The forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra were significantly reduced for Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor. Sakari Oramo directed a performance which was stormy and dramatic: the opening orchestral passage was sufficiently murky and evocative that it wouldn't have seemed out of place in Don Giovanni. A sense of barely suppressed anxiety pervaded the first movement, with unsettling dynamic swells and simmering tension; unfortunately, this manifested itself as a tendency to rush in the finale. Soloist Lars Vogt played in an honest, straightforward manner, with little rubato. In the Romance, his sound was bright rather than warm, moving through the phrases with a genial simplicity. Vogt's interest is in counterpoint: in the cadenzas, he appeared to take pleasure in the mechanics of Mozart's writing rather than the expressive implications. While Vogt's playing was perfectly enjoyable, he didn't seem to have a great deal to say with the piece: much of the atmosphere was thanks to the orchestra.

Christopher Maltman © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Christopher Maltman
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Surprisingly, the suite which Sibelius created from his incidental music to Hjalmar Procopé's Belshazzar's Feast had not received a performance at the Proms before Friday. In many ways reminiscent of Grieg's music for Peer Gynt, the suite is characterised by perfumed modal ideas, insistant cellular repetition and sparse textures. A number of the composer's symphonic hallmarks appear in reduced form: a clarinet idea in “Khadra's Dance” could have come from a symphonic development, while string textures were also familiar. The BBCSO strings provided a hushed foundation for some alluring solos, with flautist Michael Cox filling the hall with his ravishing sound in the third movement. While the suite isn't likely to become a regular fixture on concert programmes, it's fascinating to see the composer distilled in this way.

Not one, not two, but three choirs joined forces for Walton's take on the story of Belshazzar. The cantata is a choral showpiece, and certainly demonstrated the skill of the BBC ensembles in this performance: diction and ensemble was excellent, and despite there being hundreds of performers on stage, the singers were sensitive accompanists to soloist Christopher Maltman. His heavy vibrato lent gravitas to his pronouncements, suiting his narrative role, but began to wear as the piece continued. Oramo drew a symphonic performance from the BBC Symphony, refusing to let the choirs steal the spotlight. He maintained the sense of momentum throughout – no mean feat given the episodic nature of the cantata – while remaining conscious of the work's contours. Orchestra and choirs produced a glorious sound throughout, and it was hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the start of the season.