Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Friday, July 14, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

When the respective presenters of last Saturday’s Record Review and Monday’s In Tune went into Proms-trailer overdrive, I hit the ‘off’ switch and it’s been ‘Radio 3 silence’ until this First Night concert. But at least the music has finally arrived, although it had looked ordinary on paper. Once through the two-presenter intro, Sibelius’s Finlandia was given an initially small-scale account, with a too fast allegro if played with a sense of occasion by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Stephen Bryant, leader) – with the still-surviving if remaining under threat BBC Singers ( & BBC Symphony Chorus joining in for the heartfelt hymn section – conducted by Finn Dalia Stasevska (not the BBCSO’s principal conductor as stated but principal guest) who couldn’t quite instil enough fervour into the slightly rushed conclusion. She was however born in Kyiv, so it was a nice fit that Ukrainian Bohdana Frolyak’s eight-minute Let There Be Light (BBC commission: world premiere) should follow, a shadowy, sometimes anxious, if pastoral-expressive piece (seemingly) looking ahead to when Russia has been defeated and Ukraine can rebuild, musically atmospheric and harmonically affecting, written for the awful present and a better tomorrow.

Far less familiar than Finlandia is Sibelius’s Snöfrid, a “supernatural melodrama”, which attracted Lesley Manville to the speaker’s role (she was only announced today) using Edward Kemp’s English translation, the choir sticking with the original Swedish. It’s hardly vintage Sibelius if concise, scheduled for last year’s cancelled Last Night (, if worth the occasional outing. dramatic and vivid, descriptive – including shades of the composed-earlier Kullervo – becoming contemplative, cue narrator, and although there are not many words they were delivered with artistry by Manville.

Paul Lewis was the soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto – the one that Eric Morecambe played with all the right notes if not necessarily in the right order, perplexing André Previn in the process – for which Lewis was unaffected, avoiding bombast and exaggeration, appealingly direct, honestly lyrical, with Lewis’s virtuosic technique serving the music so that the first-movement cadenza was integrated and the Finale’s episodes were either leaping along vitally or breathing pure mountain air, the coda dancing and broadening triumphantly, leaving the slow movement as intimately eloquent. Throughout, Stasevska and the BBCSO were admirable partners. Although it’s possible to imagine a performance more vibrant and rhetorical, it would be difficult to find one as fresh. An encore from Lewis would have been welcome. Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra / Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, Opus 34, completed the concert, multi-ingenious at every turn, although Stasevska overdid tempo and character contrasts – too fast (piccolo & flute), too slow (oboe), wit suppressed (clarinet)… and so on, with a few glitches, and suggestions that minds were not always meeting, although the Fugue was compelling, Stasevska hurtling through it, and Purcell’s Abdelazer tune resounded to round things off.

Premiere performance, May 21, 2022.

Oksana Lytvynenko with Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine/Volodymyr Syvokhip.