BBC Philharmonic & Ben Gernon – Symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven; Elisabeth Brauß plays Mozart’s K488

Elisabeth Brauß (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Ben Gernon

Symphony No.103 in E-flat (The Drum Roll)

Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488

Symphony No.4 in B-flat, Op.60

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 3 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC Philharmonic’s chief conductor Omer Meir Wellber had to withdraw from this first Prom – Covid again – so out went the advertised first-half of Schubert and a BBC commission from Ella Milch-Sheriff. In came Ben Gernon, the orchestra’s former principal guest conductor, a late Haydn Symphony, and the German pianist Elisabeth Brauß (an award-winning BBC New Generation artist) in Mozart. All good solid Viennese fare.

A bit too solid, even stolid, in the case of The Drum Roll Symphony, in an oddly anonymous reading that nodded to period manners but rather lacked style. Haydn needs attitude, his music wagging its tail wanting to be out and about. The opening throat-clearing drumroll went well enough, but despite the first movement’s brusque Beethovenian gestures, its Allegro con spirito stayed non-alcoholic. Gernon, baton-free, turned things around in the alternating major-minor variations of the slow movement, taking it a perfectly judged tempo, distinguished by the leader Zoë Beyers’s seductive violin embroideries. But, Vienna, we did not have lift-off.

Which we did in Mozart’s K488 Piano Concerto. Brauß gave a short broadcast interview that eloquently made the point of Mozart’s operatic tendencies in his Piano Concertos, and then went on just as eloquently to make her point with considerable insight. Perhaps it was the Steinway being decisive about style, but everything slipped into focus – in lively interaction, a richer string sound than in the Haydn, lovely woodwind playing, and an unfussy, natural ensemble, surprising since the modest classical orchestra was spread over a space that normally might have accommodated Gurrelieder. If Brauß was knowing and flirtatious in the first movement, perhaps she could be forgiven for overdoing the sorrowful romance of the Adagio as her playing wandered lonely, then lonelier, as a cloud, to the point of vanishing into inaudibility. And then she – and Gernon, who really had the measure of how this Concerto goes – snapped into a deliciously theatrical account of the Finale that swaggered with good humour. I very much look forward to hearing her again soon.

Gernon and the BBC Philharmonic, the strings enlarged a desk, didn’t look back in an invigorating, edge-of-the-seat outing of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony that punches above its weight. The tonality-dodging slow introduction had vital depth and magic, the strings offered a raw, beefy sound in the strapping first-movement Allegro vivace, and throughout Gernon was very attentive to the sneak previews of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies that take you by surprise. Most satisfying was Gernon’s way with the Adagio, an equivocal mix of easy-going serenade and high drama, which gave John Bradbury’s clarinet his moment in the sun. Rhythmically taut, temperamentally secure, this was a Beethoven 4 to treasure.

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