Governments throw money into war and power games, thinking that brings security. Nuts! Bombs, threats and hysteria exacerbate tensions. Music, on the other hand, makes us more human and humane. The Proms reach people all over the world, bringing them together for a while in a kind of international street party, celebrating a shared love of music. That pays long-term dividends. If politicians had any sense they'd realize that the Proms are an amazingly effective force for good. The British taxpayers pay, but everyone benefits in the wider scheme of things.
So the First Night of the Proms is a declaration of goodwill. Stravinsky's Fireworks, op 4 is short, but it's the acorn from which the mighty oak of modern music grew. It led to Stravinsky being commissioned to write what was to become The Firebird, and later still the The Rite of Spring and the revolutionary effect that had on art, dance and music. Even the carnage of the First World War could not stem the tide of 20th century ideas.
Chabrier's Ode to Music followed. Ailish Tynan has been on many Young Artist programmes, many of which were BBC funded and promoted. She's proof that such sponsorship nurtures performers. It must be nerve wracking to sing before an audience of millions, so Jiřì Bělohlávek led the BBC Symphony Orchestra sensitively.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no 3 is another acorn, but one which didn't grow past its allegro brillante movement. Yet it's interesting because it shows how full of life the composer was just before he died. No "curse of the Pathétique", then. It was a surprising choice for something as high profile as the First Night of the Proms, when everyone's in a party mood and the audience is happy enough with flashy crowd pleasers. But in a quirky way, that's why it worked. By picking this Cinderella for the start of his series of Tchaikovsky at this year's Proms, perhaps Stephen Hough is telling us to pay attention rather than fall back on convention? The Proms may appear safe, but there's usually enough challenge for those prepared to venture.
Back to fireworks with Katia and Marielle Labèque. The First Night of the Proms is always televised, so visually it helps to have performers who look as well as sound stunning. Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for two pianos is suitably incandescent, particularly when played so fluidly. It's a three-part drama, an interplay between two different pianists and the orchestra, with individual instruments playing smaller but important roles. Moods swing between warmly tender and jazzy downbeat, from elegant serenity to uninhibited joy. One piano has a dialogue with a violin, one piano produces a series of single notes, taken up by the orchestra and then the second piano. For an encore, the Labèques then played four hands on one keyboard, a lively polka by Berio – not Luciano but his grandfather. Another Proms surprise!
International as the Proms may be, they symbolize Britishness to many, so it was good to hear Elgar, in sunny mood. In the South (Alassio) was played with joyous élan, Bělohlávek keeping the pace with a light touch.
The heart of this Prom, though, wasn't the cheerful pieces but Brahms's devastating Rhapsody for Contralto, the Alto Rhapsody. This was a wonderful performance. Few singers can produce the intensity Alice Coote can bring, without sacrificing dignity and compassion.
Goethe's poem depicts an outcast who sets off away into the wilderness. From a brooding otchestral introduction, Coote's voice projects into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall as if it were a recital room. It's significant, for the poem pits an individual against overwhelming forces. Die Ode verschlingt ihn goes the text (the desert engulfs him). Coote breathed into the "o" in Ode so it rang resonantly, yet hinting subtly of hollowness. Then she extended "verschlingt", stretching it to evoke distance and then oblivion.
There's something obsessive about this poem. The disappointed man "furtively feeds on his own worth in unfulfilling self-love" (zehrt er heimlich auf seinen eignen Wert in ung'nügender Selbstsucht) Coote brought out the repeated sounds "seinen" and "eignen". The protagonist is going round in circles, grinding himself down. Perhaps that's why the poem appealed to Brahms? Ostensibly he was upset that he'd been jilted by Clara Schumann's daughter but there's no evidence that he had a real relationship with her, or indeed with any woman, Clara included. Even more so than the German Requiem this is Brahms's Winterreise, a foretaste of the Vier ernst Gesange.
Perhaps that's why the resolution in this piece comes from the way Brahms integrates the soloist, chorus and orchestra. A characteristic Brahmsian flute melody appears, at first tentatively, then grows in power, joined in the final strophe with the choir of men's voices: no longer is the mezzo really alone, for the Vater der Liebe (father of love, possibly God) has shown compassion, revealing the thousand springs that can help the thirsty in the desert. "die tausend Quellen neben dem Durstenden in der Wüste." Coote rounds the vowel sounds in Wüste so the word seems to grow with fulfilment.
It's been 40 years since the Alto Rhapsody has been heard at the Proms. Chances are that few will be able to top Alice Coote's performance tonight. Listen to it on BBC Radio 3's "listen again" facility for the next 7 days. PLEASE SEE the more fformal version of this post in Opera Today, HERE.
Coote came to prominence when she won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize a few years ago. Ferrier's version is legendary, but Coote's delivery is firmer and stronger. Clips of Ferrier singing with Clemens Kraus are easily available anywhere, so I've chosen two more unusual ones. The first has Brigitte Fassbender singing with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague : maybe Bělohlàvek knows the place and even the performance. In any case he's a much better conductor than the rather sentimental Sinopoli. It's a good clip, though, for Fassbender herself. It was Fassbender who nurtured Alice Coote and brought her back to song after a traumatic car accident which could have ended her career.
The second clip is Marian Anderson, in commemoration. Sound quality is dodgy because it's recorded in 1939. But the committment and dignity with which Anderson sings! Alice Coote is her spiritual heir. Track down Part 1 as well, because it is such a good performance and the video is good, too. Click on the label "Proms 2009" at right for more reports. There will be lots.