Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat
Symphony No.9 in E-minor, Op.90 (From the New World)
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 20 February, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Ravel didn’t have a very high opinion of Wagner’s powers of orchestration, but he might have reconsidered had he heard what the Philharmonia and Roderick Cox made of the Siegfried Idyll. Cox, the American, Berlin-based conductor, replaced Eun Sun Kim, who was ill, and he was very impressive. In the UK he has worked with Chineke! Orchestra, and, now in his mid-thirties, has many orchestra debuts under his belt. His work in the USA includes his BME initiative with young musicians. Presumably Covid has slowed down his progress in the concert hall, but in this concert he made up for any lost time with infectious, ultra-communicative dynamism. It might help that he is also an imposing, glamorous presence on the podium.
The Philharmonia was at its most luminous in Wagner’s birthday present to his wife Cosima, and Cox had a clear idea of how to convey the music’s shifting perspectives, as the familiar quotes from his opera Siegfried hovered between suggestion and statement, making the music’s more assertive moments something of a revelation. The string sound had depth and transparency, and the wind-playing was sublime. Wagner knew how to spin a yarn, which Cox and the Philharmonia told with self-effacing subtlety.
Self-effacement is not at the top of Liszt’s agenda in his E-flat Piano Concerto, in which Cox and Benjamin Grosvenor fed off each other in a performance of great drama and romance. Once again, it was the case that everything Grosvenor touches turns to gold. He is not a showy performer, and you can only be amazed by the guileless naturalness of his style. Here he could switch to brilliant effect from the most strenuous heavy-lifting to suddenly drape skeins of decoration over accompaniments with limpid discretion. Cox had the measure of the balance between orchestra and piano, so that Liszt’s signature rhetoric spoke with full articulation. It is not a long work, but it was packed with incident and responsiveness. There were also many moments when Ravel had a point about Liszt’s orchestration, especially in the quieter, magical duets between piano and orchestral solos. Cox and Grosvenor revelled in the sheer sweep of Liszt’s skill at building tension and releasing it, and the results were thrilling.
Cox then worked more wonders with Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. It was certainly a lean and muscular performance, but it never sounded driven, while the folk elements came across with unforced authenticity. It became the aural equivalent of one of those American Sublime paintings, huge river-deep, mountain-high panoramas side-by-side with a wealth of finessed detail, upon which Cox and his players lavished a palette of rich colours. The Largo’s retreats and advances, with a heavenly, remote cor anglais solo from Peter Facer, were particularly well done, as was the Finale, which can sound rather formulaic. The horns’ sign-off, dissolving to a vanishing point, was very painterly.
Cox is a force to be reckoned with, and, observing his clean command, rhythmic fluency and attention to detail, I wondered how he’d be in, say, Beethoven and whether there is an area of repertoire he is strongly attracted to.