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Proms 2009: Prom 1 – Poulenc \ BBC Symphony \ Labeque

July 16, 2009

Poulenc Double Concerto  
BBC Symphony Orchestra  
Katia & Marielle Labeque



Listen to the swift audio review here


Those of us who queue for hours for the First Night of the Proms (I got to the Royal Albert Hall at 3pm, but I’m at pains to point out there were plenty of others starter out earlier) do so for one simple reason: we yearn for something to sweep us off our feet. Something to wow us. Something to make us clap like mad things.

No disrespect to the BBC Symph for their performance of Stravinsky’s Fireworks (try harder next time Stravinsky – yes, we know it was one of your early works but really, we can handle more than a mere 4 minutes – nor soprano Aylish Tynan whose all too small contribution in Chabrier’s Ode to Musique still managed to confirm in my mind that she’s someone with a mischievous glint in her eye and a voice I could easily fall in love with (assuming I haven’t already). Looking forward to hearing her in the Proms Chamber Music gig on Sunday 30 August at 1.00pm.

Stephen Hough did well too – don’t get me wrong – delivering a valiant performance of Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto. 

Katia and Marielle Labeque did give me the highpoint with a performance of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto.

Was it the sisters shameless enthusiasm or their vibrant red and purple outfits set off with their uncompromising high heels which helped deliver that moment?

Their technical proficiency was undeniable, so too their innate musicality. They looked good on stage and were good on stage. 

It seems a terrible crime to be sat in the crush bar at the Royal Albert Hall writing this while the rest of the audience dutifully sits through the performances of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, Elgar’s In the South and Bruckner’s Psalm 150.

If I promise to listen on the radio or watch it in HD when I get home, do you suppose the soloists, chorus, orchestra and conductor Jiri Belohlavek (not to mention Proms Director Roger Wright and Radio 3 Interactive Editor Roland Taylor) will forgive me? I do hope so. If they don’t, they have my mobile number. 


Katia and Marielle Labeque play the piano. Yes they do.

Shortly after I came out, a disingenuous lesbian acquaintance of mine once took me to one side and informed me of the world as she saw it: lesbians and gay men don’t mix – don’t try.

She’s wrong of course. Wrong because gay men never make sweeping statements like that and so, neither should she. Wrong because she shouldn’t speak on behalf of all lesbians – as far as I understand plenty if not all are capable of speaking for themselves. And also wrong because there are plenty of examples to the contrary.

There’s no time to list the many examples, only the most pertinent.

Composer Francis Poulenc – himself a homosexual and not a particularly happy one – was at one stage in his composing life to benefit from the patronage of Princess Edmond de Polignac (Wianaretta Singer, heir to the sewing machine empire Singer). A lesbian herself, Singer was reported to have made it clear in hysterical terms to her then husband that consummating her marriage was not something high on her list of priorities. But once her marriage was annulled she took the money and poured into the arts. Good on her.

One such beneficiary was Poulenc who, commissioned in 1932, came up with the Double Piano Concerto which features in the First Night of the Proms.

I’ve cheated and taken a listen to it before the gig – in part because I literally can’t wait for the first night and also because I’m painfully aware I ought in part to sound reasonably knowledgeable about the subject material.

The First Night of the Proms is always the curtain raiser, with a usually “bitty” programme intended to welcome the passer-by into the fold and provide a taster for what’s coming up.

Whilst there’s no bone rattling awe-inspiring work like last year’s Strauss’ Festival Prelude to blow away the cobwebs during Friday’s first night, the high point of the evening will undoubtedly be the Labeque sister’s performance of Poulenc’s Double Concerto for piano. If it’s anything like their recent recording of the concerto, their performance should be a brilliant display.

Whilst @bbcproms has described rehearsals of the work akin to the smell of fresh paint (maybe there’s been some remedial work done on the interior at the Royal Albert Hall, who knows), there’s no doubt the concerto is a classic illustration of a composer writing to appeal to as wide an audience as possible in as short amount of time possible. There’s a sniff of a murder mystery in the opening movement the moment the pianists pound the keyboard in the opening bars. That murder mystery might as well be played out on a train what with all the chuntering in the piano line. Gripping and shamelessly entertaining.

The rest of the work is typically pastiche-like putting in the same stable as Benjamin Britten’s brilliant and sadly single piano concerto written ten years before. Whilst it might be unfair (and utterly pointless) to compare the two works, Poulenc’s effort may well have the edge for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on at the moment. I’m in no doubt however that having said this people will almost certainly be up in arms for making such a preposterous remark without due reverence to supporting evidence.

The rest of the programme – Tchaikovsky’s 3rd piano concerto, Stravinsky’s Firework piece (a fittingly 4 minutes of twinkling orchestration to open the programme) and Bruckner’s Psalm 150 will be big and broad and all encompassing. The perfect opener to seven weeks of pure indulgence.

  1. David England permalink

    Will you be promming? I hope to see you there if so.

  2. David England permalink

    Consider yourself forgiven!

  3. Pete Lazonby permalink

    Those who “dutifully” remained saw the highlight of the evening with the Brahms. What sort of deluded narcissist would consider their unsolicited opinions to be more important than that?
    I have nothing but pity for anyone so beige as to be titillated by the risible antics of K Lebeque who, as usual, just looked like she would rather have been a rock star.
    Surely any one of the 5 or 6 thousand people who could be bothered to stay til the end has a more relevant opinion than yours?

  4. Roger Thomas permalink

    I must second Pete Lazenby. I watched the concert on TV (but will be at several later Proms). In the Brahms Alice Coote was magnificent — utterly moving and authoritative. What a voice and what articulation! She had the good material but by comparison Ailish Tynan is all noise and no feeling. What does her army of fans see in her to make them rave so much. Her diction was appalling. Did anyone pick out a single word of French in her contribution to the Chabrier?

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