Prom 22: Isata Kanneh-Mason plays Prokofiev

Sergey Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E minor

Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ryan Bancroft

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 1 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Prom 22 unfurled a captivating tapestry of musical artistry, with Prokofiev’s piano concerto No.3 and Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony gracing the stage, masterfully brought to life by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of conductor Ryan Bancroft.

Isata Kanneh-Mason’s proms debut proved to be a revelation in Prokofiev’s concerto, unfolding with a dreamlike allure that quickly escalated into a dazzling allegro. With virtuosity that appeared to know no bounds, Kanneh-Mason fearlessly navigated Prokofiev’s labyrinthine score, delivering the composer’s most challenging passages with deft precision. A minor disjoint at the outset was swiftly resolved, paving the way for an exhilarating musical partnership between the soloist and the orchestra.

The second movement held a prophetic quality, as if foretelling Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, penned nearly two decades later. Each variation was met with unwavering command, as Kanneh-Mason conquered the pianistic challenges with a prowess that belied her age. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales provided a vibrant canvas, adroitly accompanying the pianist’s virtuosic display.

The concerto’s third movement provides a brief interlude amidst its fiery pyrotechnics, introducing a powerful slower middle section that here offered a welcome balance to the intensity. The concerto’s final pages unfolded with scintillating acrobatics, leaving the first half in a state of rapturous conclusion.

In the second half, Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony with its overarching sense of fate, marked by its recurrent “fate motif,” pervading each of the four movements; Bancroft’s interpretation lent a distinct sense of purpose to the performance.

From the very first note Bancroft knew precisely what he wanted. This was his interpretation and, overall, it worked extremely well. The opening, slow and measured, set a storytelling tone, akin to “once upon a time”. The orchestra’s richly sonorous lower strings beautifully intertwining with the clarinets’ melodic lines. A spirited march followed. Marked ‘Allegro con anima’ a little more animation would have been nice. The waltz-like second subject sparkled with Tchaikovsky’s signature charm, evoking the composer’s brilliance as a ballet maestro. At the end of the first movement the conductor kept is hands up giving the audience no opportunity to applaud.

The second movement started well with a clear and bright horn solo, ably handled by the BBCNOW principal horn, Tim Thorpe. The change of speed that immediately followed felt a little awkward, however there was some nice shaping to the string phrases.

The third movement, idiosyncratic, proved a delightful excursion, with lilting ländler phrases that danced playfully, each note carefully sculpted by the orchestra’s exquisite musicianship. A polished performance, however, I am not sure that I am in complete agreement with the rallentando that, each time, led into the bassoon solo passages.

As the symphony culminated in its grand finale, the restatement of the fate motif in the major key tries to offer an uplifting and affirmative conclusion to the symphony. Bancroft isn’t convinced by this mock joviality, and I tend to agree – an air of irony added to the final moments, offered a touch of intrigue, leaving us contemplating the symphony’s profound emotional depth. The final four notes punched out defiantly, the orchestra’s resonant tones lingered in the hall’s acoustic splendour.

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