Mark Elder conducts the Hallé with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and organist Anna Lapwood in music by Unsuk Chin, Beethoven and Saint-Saëns

Unsuk Chin
subito con forza [U.K. premiere]

Piano Concerto No.4, in G, Op.58 [cadenzas: Saint-Saëns]

Symphony No.3 “avec orgue” in C minor, Op.78

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Anna Lapwood (Royal Albert Hall organ)

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé in London for the Proms had the feeling of a royal progress. The Royal Albert Hall was packed, including the arena, the Proms ‘buzz’ was like business as usual, and the concert itself achieved a palpable sense of lift-off. They started with a big percussive bang – the UK premiere of subito con forzs by Unsuk Chin. The South Korean composer, who has lived in Berlin for many years, is one of the grandes dames of contemporary music, and her work covers a huge spectrum of imagination and sheer brilliance. A BBC co-commission with the Köln Philharmonie and Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, subito con forza missed its 2020 premiere intended to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday year. As the title suggests, the five-minute piece is an explosion of Beethovenian gestures, among them the gruff opening of Coriolan and a snatch of grandeur from the Emperor, filtered and wildly distorted through Chin’s subversive orchestration. It was fist-shaking stuff, with what I took as a brief tinnitus-like whine of stillness, alluding to Beethoven’s deafness.

Then the real Beethoven stepped out in an immensely inward and poetic performance of the Piano Concerto No.4, with Benjamin Grosvenor at his most subtle and communicative. I like to think that I know how this concerto will go from the soloist’s opening chord, and, as Grosvenor placed it with a natural, door-opening finesse, high hopes were justified. There was a similar unselfconscious inevitability to the piano’s ‘official’ entry, and you just couldn’t fault his graceful moulding of discursive passage-work into point-making statement. Both he and Sir Mark were completely alive as to who deferred to whom, as to who discreetly slips into the driving seat, always aware of how the music characterises and regroups like a choreographed conversation, while the Hallé played its part with consummate elegance. Even more persuasive was Grosvenor’s carefully graded, Fury-taming diminuendo in the Andante, balanced by that strange efflorescence of anxiety just before the Rondo’s slightly reflective vivace. To anticipate the final work, Grosvenor used Saint-Saëns’s cadenzas, which didn’t exactly gel with the poetry of the whole performance. There was an encore, Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, which was as good a way off Mount Parnassus as any.

Some of the audience were disappointed not to be obliterated by the organ’s mighty blast of C major marking the move into the Finale of Saint-Saëns’s “avec orgue” Third Symphony. It was certainly ff but not fff – in the score it is marked modestly as f – and, as it turned out, very much part of Elder’s integrated view of the work, a great symphony that gives us lofty Lisztian bombast, a very Gallic brand of nobilmente, ravishing tunes that guide the listener with impeccable clarity, and equally ravishing orchestration that hints at impressionist effects but prefers a gin-clear luminosity, in all of which the Hallé players didn’t drop a stitch. The organ’s role in the gravity-defying Adagio was as finely balanced as I have heard it, and one could hear every detail of the woodwinds’ chattering semi-quavers in the first movement. If anything, the Radio 3 recording heightens the dynamic contrasts and moments of meditative serenity, and for sheer brilliance the piano role in the Scherzo and the Finale was unbeatable. With Sir Mark guiding the Symphony to a magnificent close, this was a great and coherent performance.

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