The First Night of the Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, review: Igor Levit played with rare grace and intimacy

Something old, something new, something borrowed… the old English rhyme for the ideal wedding outfit fitted this year’s first Prom – if not in that order. The opener was Tom Coult’s “St John’s Dance”, a new work by a rising British composer that got things off to an intriguing start. 

The title refers to the contagious medieval craze that saw thousands of people caught up in a mad communal fling, in which they had visions of heaven and hell, and from which they had great difficulty in escaping.

The composer’s blurb made the piece sound appropriately threatening, but the reality was anything but: six minutes of epigrammatic and edgy music, its textures diamond-hard, its momentum coming and going like little gusts of wind, and radiating innocent fun – which the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner delivered immaculately.

No question about Coult’s competence as an orchestrator, but it will be interesting to see how he pans out in the opera he is currently writing for Aldeburgh.

So here we were at the start of another classical binge, taking in everything from a multi-storey car-park in Peckham and the historic dock in Hull, to the refined chamber ambiance of the Cadogan Hall.

This year, in a depressing sign of the times, massive concrete blocks surround the Royal Albert Hall to prevent lorry-bombs getting close, and the bag searches are meticulous. But once inside, the atmosphere is unchanged, including the heave-ho moment when one side of the audience antiphonally answers the other as the piano lid is raised. 

The man for whom it was raised was Igor Levit, the young Russian-German pianist whose renditions of Beethoven have over the past year been the toast of the town. Here his Beethoven did not disappoint; the Third Piano Concerto was played with rare grace, intimacy and a flawless symbiosis between soloist and orchestra.

Many pianists try to fight the RAH acoustic and still don’t project; Levit barely…

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