Prom 14: Elim Chan and the BBCSO, with Jan Lisiecki

Noriko Koide
Swaddling Silk and Gossamer Rain [BBC commission: European premiere]

Piano Concerto No.3 in C-minor, Op.37

Variations on an Original Theme [Enigma), Op.36

Jan Lisiecki (piano)

 BBC Symphony Orchestra
Elim Chan

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 25 July, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Hong Kong-born Elim Chan has steadily been making her reputation since winning the Donatella Flick Competition in 2014, aged 28. This was her debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (her Proms debut was in 2019), and she opened with Swaddling Silk and Gossamer Rain by Noriko Koide, which the BBCSO first played in the BBC Proms Japan last year.

The title refers to the silkworm and the fragility of its life (and of life in general). Even on second hearing, it was not clear when the music started. Chan seemed to be sculpting silence out of thin air, with concert-hall noises-off more prominent. It’s a short creation-myth, with well-worked gestures of toneless blowing of wind instruments, isolated and arbitrary sound-chunks, string rustlings, all of which gradually coalesce into something less fragmentary, with Berg-like melodic scraps delivering a vivid gash of gorgeousness as, I imagine, Koide’s worm began to thrive. A wind solo suggested the antique sound of a shakuhachi as a spare, meditative Japanese sensibility took over the mighty Albert Hall. It was performed with great finesse.

Jan Lisiecki already has a substantial career under his belt. He was at the Proms last year with Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, and he brought a similar, hugely attractive directness to Beethoven 3. Perhaps Chan overdid the disembodied stealth of the opening, but it gave Lisiecki plenty of elbow room to ramp up the movement’s tension in an unequivocal and bracing declaration of classical concerto dialectic. And Lisiecki has an enviable facility in cresting musical character, which easily flattered the Largo into a veiled romance of considerable beauty, supported by the baton-less Chan unfolding some equally suggestive, layered playing. The Finale was a poised parade of good musical manners given plenty of grit by Lisiecki’s persuasive rhythmic virility. His encore, Chopin’s Opus 9/2 Nocturne, played with consummate, subdued luminosity, complemented Beethoven’s emergent romanticism

Chan then picked up her baton for a wonderfully ingratiating performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. She may have favoured an impressionist filter to engage with the composer’s friends pictured within, but they and their music responded well. The chamber-music intimacy of the BBCSO’s playing was almost self-effacingly subtle – character and idiom emerged to breathtaking effect, expressing the work’s swagger, secrecy and melancholy, with Elgar’s theme adapting with uncanny accuracy to the work’s emotional world. From the brilliant showtime of ‘Troyte’, to the barely audible opening of ‘Nimrod’ and the stillness of the ‘Romanza’, this was a performance that will linger, played and conducted with great understanding and even greater affection.

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