The death of kings
Royal Albert Hall
Dmitry Shostakovich: Festive Overture, Op. 96
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor
Sergey Prokoviev, arr. Abram Stassevich: Ivan the Terrible, Op. 116
Lang Lang (piano), Irina Tchistyakova (mezzo-soprano), James Rutherford (bass-baritone), Simon Russell Beale (narrator)
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tippett: King Priam
David Wilson-Johnson (Priam), Elizabeth Connell (Hecuba/Athene), Susan Bickley (Andromache/Hera), Susan Parry (Helen/Aphrodite), Marcel Reijans (Paris), William Dazeley (Hector), Martyn Hill (Achilles), Stephen Roberts (Patroclus), Timothy Robinson (Hermes), Christine Rice (Nurse/Serving Woman), Christopher Gillett (Young Guard), Stephen Richardson (Old Man), James Eager (Paris as a boy)
David Atherton (conductor)
BBC Singers, BBC National Orchestra of Wales
It has become an annual ritual to lament the passing of the "big choral work" at the first night of the Proms. Perhaps it was felt to be a guarantee of Anglo-German purity for the season. This year, the opening weekend consisted of a Russian-themed conventional concert (almost full), a "nation's favorite" concert (sold out) and a masterful performance of Tippett's King Priam (half empty). King Priam introduces the theme of Greek myth, while Prokoviev's Ivan the Terrible is the first performance of a strand to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. (Berlioz, the other anniversary composer, gets similar coverage, culminating in a performance of Les Troyens on 25 August.) The weight may have been redistributed, but it is still there, and a popular first night is surely worth having. There are other ways to hear Gurrelieder these days.
The first night was popular enough, but the performances were a mixed bag. Leonard Slatkin's family name suggests Russian roots, but there was little unifying style. The Festive Overture was blandly perky, which might be about right for Shostakovich's dutiful occasional piece for the 37th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Lang Lang played the Tchaikovsky concerto like an ultra-intelligent puppy dog, all paws and eagerness to please, but after a thunderous start, the orchestra all but disappeared.
Prokoviev's music for Ivan the Terrible is an integral part of a Gesamtkunstwerk that has probably suffered from the fact that Eisenstein's film is, well, not awfully good. Produced in Russia during the second world war it is inevitably in part a hymn to Stalin's leadership, although the second part went into incompatible historical detail and was suppressed. The aspired for national style looks desperately old fashioned, far more than the segment of Paul Leni's expressionist Wachsfigurenkabinett on which it is partly modelled: Nikolay Cherkassov as Ivan is an overblown copy of Conrad Veidt in Leni's film, but then by the time Ivan was being made, Veidt was in Hollywood playing stylish, utterly evil Nazis like Major Strasser in Casablanca. The music, arranged into a symphonic cantata by Abram Stassevich, who conducted the original film score, is considerably more impressive. It is obviously related to Boris Godunov with the chorus (people) a major character and commentator, but it is also strikingly mid-century modern. Stassevich partly abandons the narrative structure of the film to present a sequence of conflicts and interludes, ending with the people's appeal to Ivan to return and rule.
Simon Russell Beale made a sonorous job of delivering a rather fragmented narration (by Edward Kemp). Irina Tchistyakova sang two lullabies, one nostalgic for the infant Ivan, the other grim, for the young would-be usurper, in a very Russian style with excruciating vibrato. James Rutherford was less Russian but appealingly bumptious in a bloodthirsty carouse with Ivan's praetorian guard. The combined choruses were well drilled and robust.
If Ivan was an interesting oddity, King Priam was what the Proms are all about. Not apparently connected with any production, this single performance with an ideal cast, sensitive orchestra and, in the BBC singers, a substantial, disciplined chorus, was powerful and straightforward. Tippett's libretto looks risible on paper, and his word setting can be excruciating, perhaps because he aimed to make it part of the alienation effect. But his version of the Iliad, seen from Priam's viewpoint as a father and a king, helplessly trapped in the working out of destiny, is dramatic and moving in performance. The concert version if anything improved the effect by leaving the characters totally exposed.
At the centre of everything, David Wilson-Johnson was heartbreakingly human as Priam. Elizabeth Connell was an inspired choice for Hecuba: a dramatic soprano of the old school and regal presence, she made a handful of physical and vocal gestures powerfully expressive. The rest of the ensemble were impeccably cast, although Marcel Reijans as Paris, while not short of vocal glamour, didn't quite live up to his sultry programme photo.