Mass hysteria, Schiller’s Ode to Joy and Wild Nights – a heady mix for this year’s opening night of the BBC Proms. Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were on fine form for this fascinatingly eclectic opening night’s programme, and the contrast of the young Russian-born, Hanover-based pianist (and pro-European – more of that later) Igor Levit with the massed choral forces for Adams’ Harmonium made for a thrilling opening to the season.

Edward Gardner © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Edward Gardner
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

This year’s BBC Proms features no fewer than fifteen new BBC commissions or co-commissions, as well as nine other London, UK or European premières. London-born Tom Coult (b.1988) describes his St John’s Dance, a BBC commission and world première, as "a relentless series of dances – often spiralling out of control". Endeavouring to capture the horrific form of mass hysteria in the Middle Ages that drove hundreds to dance uncontrollably, Coult layers successive dances on top of each other, building to a wild cacophonous conclusion. It was a tall order to achieve chaotic frenzy in just six minutes, and there were a couple of rhythmic hiatuses that halted progress along the way. But the overlaying structure, growing from a glassy opening violin solo to a final manic tutti, joined along the way by a crazed clarinet solo, is deftly constructed, and Coult’s writing has great energy and drive, making this a successful concert opener, given a tight and committed reading by Gardner and the BBCSO.

A total contrast, Levit’s Beethoven was a wonderfully contained, intimate affair – no mean achievement in the massive, noisy Royal Albert Hall. He was never afraid to play pianissimo when required (which given the acoustic, demanded concentrated listening), and Gardner controlled the orchestral dynamics accordingly. Equally, Levit followed Beethoven’s requirements (groundbreaking at the time) for the piano to drop into the background from time to time and accompany orchestral soloists with rippling passagework, instead of drowning out the orchestral players, as is often the case. This was particularly noticeable for the flute/bassoon duet in the slow movement, and the playful clarinet solo in the finale. Levit made the long lyrical lines of the Largo sing, and Gardner did well to maintain the momentum of the slow supporting rhythmic pulse. The final Rondo followed attacca, and Levit invested the perky theme with great mischief. He could barely contain himself in the orchestral sections, almost ‘playing’ the piano stool as a percussion instrument, and the final cheeky Presto was full of joy. He followed with a welcome encore to match his discreet EU lapel pin: Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from the Ninth Symphony (the adopted European Union anthem), morphed into his own variations, before dying away to nothing, played with the same intimacy and integrity as the concerto.

Igor Levit and the BBC Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Igor Levit and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

For John Adams’ fiendish and exhilarating Harmonium, the BBC Symphony Chorus was joined by 250 young singers who make up the BBC Proms Youth Choir. Drawn from various choirs and music hubs across the UK (including the BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy), for some of these singers, this was their first experience of live choral singing. The combined 350 plus singers made an impressive sound, and they had clearly been impeccably drilled to master the complex and challenging rhythms that Adams throws at them. Harmonium is an early example of Adams combining the rigour of minimalism with lyrically tonal word-setting to great effect, drawing on metaphysical and transcendental texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. In the opening movement, Negative Love, Adams builds literally everything, even the text, from nothing, from repeated rhythmic "no"'s to the vibrant, bright chords that "give(s) fuel to their fire". Inevitably perhaps, adrenalin meant that the singers were in danger of rushing some of the early repeated figuration, but Gardner, as throughout, had an iron grip on proceedings, giving confidence and security to the massed singers who soon settled into what was a commanding and tight performance. Ensemble was impressive in the largely unison lyrical settings of Because I could not stop for Death, and their diction here was particularly strong. Wild Nights, which follows a monumental extended orchestral crescendo, was suitably ecstatic – a few overly wild rhythmic entries more than compensated for by the combined mass energy. Diction is also more challenging in this thrilling concluding movement, given that all voices (basses and altos included) are in the stratospheric reaches of the choral registers, but the singers managed to convey the spirit of the text nevertheless. Overall, a highly impressive performance of this modern choral classic, testament to the input of the array of chorus directors involved, as well as to Gardner and the BBCSO’s command of the work's massive orchestral demands.

An exciting and celebratory opening statement of intent for this year’s BBC Proms. Let the season commence!