There’s something to be said for beginning your Proms season with a great blast from the magnificent Royal Albert Hall organ. It helps to clear away the cobwebs of all the prejudgments and speculation about what this year’s programme might or might bring. Five minutes into Westminster Abbey organist James O’Donnell’s take on the Poulenc organ concerto, I’d completely forgotten if I was supposed to be having an opinion about the place of early music at the Proms or whether having a Radio 1Xtra Prom was a stroke of genius or madness.
That said, the sheer loudness of the organ began to work against the overall effect as we travelled deeper into the piece. The brilliance of Poulenc’s 1938 creation lies in its contrasts: the Bach-inflected Baroqueness of its twisting, fugal figures with the French Romanticism to be found in its delicate, quasi-pastoral passages. It’s a tremendous feat of registration and balance that Poulenc demands from the soloist and conductor, and at times in this interpretation both volume control and tempo appear to have slipped a little out of control.
I have a lot of time for Thomas Søndergård and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but this was not their most glittering outing. The very best versions of Mozart’s last symphony – his 41st, commonly known as “Jupiter” – make you feel like you’ve been caught in a rainstorm on a cloudlessly sunny day, so complex and baffling is its range and ambition. Stuffed full of musical ideas, it can become muddy in a lacklustre performance, which is what happened here. However, the famous final movement with its blended-in fugue was very good, and more than made up for a lack of direction earlier in the piece.
The real revelation of the evening was the BBC National Chorus of Wales, which gave us Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Haydn’s Te Deum No 2 either side of the interval. Despite the gulf of centuries between them, the rich, focused sound of the chorus worked well in both, and Søndergård’s restrained conducting style came into its own here. The decision to have the singers stand mixed up together rather than in their voice parts for the Haydn was a good one, too, meaning that even when the different lines had staggered entries, the music emerged from the chorus as a whole and not from a specific side of the hall. Sadly, we won’t be seeing the NCW again this season, but I sincerely hope they return next year with a bigger and more ambitious work to showcase their sound.