At the Last Night of the Proms, a colourful sea of flags billow in the Arena of the Royal Albert Hall. For the First Night of the 2016 season, two flags – both unfurled by the same gentleman – greeted the evening's soloists: Argentinian for cellist Sol Gabetta; Russian for mezzo Olga Borodina. Another – the French Tricolore – was projected across the organ as the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo opened proceedings with a stirring account of La Marseillaise, in tribute to those who had lost their lives in Thursday's horrific attack in Nice.

Sakari Orami conducts <i>La Marseillaise</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Orami conducts La Marseillaise
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

A sombre mood hung over the opening work as business proper began with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, representing the Shakespeare400 strand that runs through this Proms season. Clarinets and bassoons intoned an Orthodox-like chant, strings – soft-grained rather than ominous – gently stirred to life. Oramo took a leisurely approach, the “light through yonder window” ushered in very slowly in the great love theme. Passions were initially too tepid until the strings generated more heat at the climax. The haunting phrases at the close, flecked by rippling harp figures, were movingly played.

Sol Gabetta © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sol Gabetta
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

That haunting poignancy continued into Elgar's Cello Concerto, the sense of resignation palpable from Sol Gabetta's opening soliloquy. This was a very daring performance. Gabetta produces quite a small sound – warm, but intimate – and in the Royal Albert Hall's barn such an approach can either distance the soloist from the audience or it can draw the audience in. It's a gamble that paid off, not least because Oramo balanced his forces so as not to overwhelm his soloist. Gabetta's lyrical tone gently probed the doubts and nostalgia that fill Elgar's first movement, replaced by the second's kittenish skittering. The slow aria of the Adagio was beautifully hushed and long-breathed, Gabetta bringing a true cantilena to her playing before the stoic finale.

Gabetta's singing tone was heard again in the encore – this time via her gentle soprano, accompanying her cello in the Dolcissimo from Pēteris Vasks' Grāmata čellam (The Book of Cello) – glassy slides briefly making way for a drone over which she sang.

The First Night wouldn't be the First Night, though, without some sort of choral blockbuster, duly delivered after the interval courtesy of Prokofiev's cantata Alexander Nevsky, drawn from his from score to Eisenstein's 1938 film – a piece of anti-Nazi propoganda depicting the medieval leader Nevsky's defeat of invading Teutonic forces on the banks of the River Neva. 2016 marks Prokofiev's 125th anniversary – not that he features much in this Proms season – so this was a welcome acknowledgement.

Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Prokofiev gives the choruses, here the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales, plenty to do. They lacked Russian bite, but nevertheless made a huge impact in the hall. Oramo, such a genial presence on the podium, wrestles with these sorts of epics rather well. Brass growled and groaned in The Crusaders in Pskov, but the real highlight was the vivid Battle on the Ice, a bruising encounter, propelled to a thrilling climax. Then came Olga Borodina to survey the dead, her plush tone still remarkably evident in her lament before the chorus' rousing closing hymn. Terrific stuff.