The week in classical: BBC Proms week one; Ariadne auf Naxos – review

After a week of existential crisis, the BBC found redemption in one corner of its activity it may be wise to cherish. The Proms 2023 launched in the Royal Albert Hall with high drama of the right kind. The audience was upbeat, the prommers shouted heave-ho, a climate change protesters’ scuffle was swiftly contained. The BBC Singers, still here, still admired by those who recognise their skills, were cheered. The corporation’s self-hype broke even its own extravagant record, and reaped rewards: viewing figures for the First Night TV broadcast were the highest for 14 years, with more listeners to Radio 3 content, live or on catchup, during the first weekend than ever before.

The mixed-fare opening programme (instead of the traditional choral blockbuster) could have sat comfortably in any mid-season event, but this wasn’t a time to complain. Paul Lewis was Paul Lewis was the agile and imaginative soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, making it decidedly more interesting than usual, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska, who wooed the crowd. By the end of the weekend, a northern soul night had recalled the pleasures of Wigan Casino c.1975. The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, fizzing and smiling, directed by the Puck-like genius of violinist Pekka Kuusisto, showed how Finnish folk could slap hands with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I suspect you had to be there for that one, but the mood communicated itself on TV or, better still, radio. The nightly live Proms broadcasts remain the most addictive form of summer listening.

My first in situ prom of the season was a solo recital by the British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. The Sunday morning timing meant a sparse but attentive audience for this exceptional concert. Each work he chose also existed in an orchestral version. Liszt’s Réminiscenses de Norma, a virtuosic operatic transcription, compresses Bellini’s 1831 tragedy about a druid priestess into a 15-minute pianistic fantasy. The listener may be unaware that the thunderous opening chords depict Gauls gathering for a mistletoe ceremony. No matter. This spectacular work has its own pianistic dramas: harp-like cascades of notes, multiple octaves and rumbling, throbbing bass notes sounding like menacing brass fanfares.

Grosvenor, a Liszt devotee who included this piece on his 2021 album of the composer’s music, made all seem effortless. Two Ravel works, Le tombeau de Couperin, gleaming with pinpoint accuracy, and La valse, gauzy, hallucinatory, along with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, completed an ambitious programme. Grosvenor was 11 years old when he won the BBC Young Musician keyboard final in 2004. He played at the first night of the Proms at the age of 19. His path to maturity has been charted keenly. At 31, he is a world-class performer.

Another British pianist of established international renown, Stephen Hough attracted a capacity audience to Tuesday’s BBC Philharmonic Prom, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. The concert also marked the 50th anniversary of the Royal Northern College of Music, with many alumni on the platform. Hough (ex-RNCM) was soloist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1, an early work that the composer rewrote in midlife, with distant echoes of the Grieg concerto but an entirely distinctive voice. Hough revelled in the improvisatory feel of some accompanying passages, letting the orchestra shine, then bursting into attack and melody as the music commanded.

After five returns to the stage, this much loved player yielded to the cheers and gave an encore. Grace-Evangeline Mason’s short Ablaze the Moon, a world premiere, sensuous and intriguing, its shape aligned to a poem by Sara Teasdale, was over too quickly. The BBC Philharmonic then played Mahler’s Symphony No 1, Wigglesworth keeping up the momentum of this 50-minute work, incisive, reluctant to linger – a positive – but allowing the aural character, burnt into every note of the orchestration, to emerge. The BBC Philharmonic embraced the dangers to give a rousing, high-energy performance.

The rest of the week consisted of Richard Strauss, and a second dose of Wigglesworth: no complaints on either front. Ariadne auf Naxos at Garsington, which Wigglesworth conducted with the Philharmonia in the pit, follows the success two years ago of the company’s Der Rosenkavalier. The staging, again by Bruno Ravella, designed by Giles Cadle, laid bare the taut patterns and palindromes of this two-part opera. The minimal set, full of spatial oddity, borrowed from the surreal world of Giorgio de Chirico. This simplicity of approach brought out the work’s human drama, often lost in archness or excess. The usually irrepressible Zerbinetta was here desolate as well as pragmatic: Jennifer France, a superb actor as well as a peerless coloratura soprano, carried it off.

Polly Leech (The Composer) and Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Garsington Opera.
Polly Leech (the Composer) and Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Garsington Opera: ‘no weak links’. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

From the various archetypes in the prologue, to Harlequin (Marcus Farnsworth) and the Composer (Polly Leech), there were no weak links. Young Woo Kim’s clarion Tenor/Bacchus, tailored in suit and tie, would have ambushed any lovesick Cretan princess. Natalya Romaniw, in that title role, rich-toned, placid and sorrowful in her abandonment (on a park bench) until her god comes along, made this an unforgettable evening.

Related: Classical home listening: a Schubert first and a Scottish-Mexican love affair

The other Strauss event, intended as a night off, deserves mention: Manchester Collective played Metamorphosen as part of Bold Tendencies’ summer season in its semi-open-air, south London car-park venue, and an arrangement of Four Last Songs, with Ruby Hughes singing the work for the first time. This soprano, ever passionate and thoughtful, should now perform these songs with full orchestra. I hope she does. Even the way she attached the clothes peg to her music with each page turn – necessary in the high winds – was classy.

Star ratings (out of five)
BBC Proms week one
Ariadne auf Naxos