A Prom from 1958

Overture ‘Ruy Blas’, Op.95
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Lars Vogt (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 23 July, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A feature of Roger Wright’s first season as Proms director is the recreation of concerts from the distant past (the second being Prom 48, which focuses on the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony). This current generous programme reflected a Prom given by Basil Cameron and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on 3 September 1958, when the first half comprised the Mendelssohn works and the Brahms concerto, Maria Donska the soloist.

Fifty years on, overtures are now a rare commodity and with audiences maybe deemed less responsive to long, uninterrupted sits, an second interval was inserted, after the ‘Italian’ symphony; a blessing given the heat in the Royal Albert Hall.

Jiří BělohlávekThat the evening did not feel like a marathon was entirely due to Jiří Bělohlávek’s conducting and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s outstanding response. Mendelssohn sparkled, was light to the touch, and was fleet of foot. A charming account of the ‘Italian’ Symphony danced throughout and was notable for luminous textures. With six double basses positioned left of centre, the sound was weighted towards the treble and was benefited by the use of antiphonal violins, the bass tread of the Andante unfolding in a graceful, Handelian manner. An attractive lilt to the minuet rhythm of the third movement then gave way to urgent forward movement in the ‘Saltarello’ finale, Bělohlávek driving the music forward at a thrilling pace.

This winning approach extended to the frothy curtain raiser, a rare outing for the Overture, Ruy Blas. Clean chords from brass and winds were matched by an equally well-defined Allegro, with the warmth of the clarinet and cello unison theme subtly restrained in its two appearances.

The lightness of touch evident in Bělohlávek’s Mendelssohn extended to Brahms (with a larger bass section). Lars Vogt was notably undemonstrative in his playing of the Second Piano Concerto, conscious perhaps of the work’s symphonic layout. At times the orchestra was too light of tread if bejewelled with detail. Tempo relationships were expertly handled – not least the middle section of the second movement scherzo, which sparkled in neo-Baroque glory. Such an elegant air brought distinction to the fourth movement in particular, aided as it was with Mozartean humour, and the swing of Brahms’s Hungarian rhythms was lightly indulgent. In the preceding Andante, Susan Monks found an ideal tone for the baleful cello solo, Vogt passing her his bunch of flowers as he took the applause.

Lars VogtVogt himself had been a most sensitive soloist, modest where he could have employed showmanship and always respectful of Brahms’s themes as they interlock with the orchestra, particularly in the first movement. Yet where his interpretation needed body, as in the big octaves accompanying the return of the scherzo theme, it was not found wanting.

Bělohlávek also found grace and poise in a fine reading of Brahms’s Second Symphony, the music unfolding naturally and unhurriedly as he rightly took the exposition repeat (as he done in the ‘Italian’). The role of the trombones and tuba was carefully played to highlight their role as Brahms’s “black wings that flutter continually over us”, their subtle interruptions of mood casting a shadow but ultimately breaking into sunlight in the symphony’s ultimate coda.

In between lay an Adagio that also revealed darker undercurrents, resolving only in its final bars, while a fluid ‘intermezzo’ third movement began with an attractive oboe solo from Richard Simpson, the strings dancing vivaciously in response. Bělohlávek’s tendency to lighten the textures in both composers’ music made for an evening of lyricism, charisma and wit, the length of the evening made inconsequential.

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