Prom 24: BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena – Ginastera’s Ollantay & Schubert’s Great C-major Symphony – Steven Osborne plays Britten’s Piano Concerto

Ollantay [London premiere]
Piano Concerto in D, Op.13
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Steven Osborne (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Juanjo Mena

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 2 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Juanjo MenaPhotograph: Michal NovakCentenary composer Alberto Ginastera remains an unknown quantity, although English National Opera’s production of Bomarzo is fondly remembered from forty years ago.

The colourfully scored Ollantay – only the fourth time Ginastera’s music has appeared at the Proms – is inspired by Mayan mythology and depicts the confrontation between the male offspring of the Earth (Ollantay) and the Sun (Inca), evoking the Andes with the lonely sound of a flute, then the grandeur of the mountains themselves, followed by war music (not a million miles from The Rite of Spring) and finally Ollantay’s death as he prophesies the destruction of the Inca empire.

Juanjo Mena, who is recording a Ginastera series for Chandos, had the measure of Ollantay, viewing it as a dramatic entity, the BBC Philharmonic providing darkly dramatic playing. One is aware of the shortcomings of Ginastera’s music, an inability to develop ideas only one of them, but he is an attractive figure worth discovering.

Steven Osborne is a seasoned champion of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto. It may be an early work but it is not immature. Osborne showed incisive attack in the first movement, but with tenderness in the beguiling soft passage after the thunderous climax and thoughtful introspection in the third movement ‘Impromptu’. The bravura passages of the march-like Finale were delivered with panache and Osborne did his best to conceal the rather perfunctory nature of the final gallop. The BBC Philharmonic is in good form and there were many instances of fine support such as the furiously repeated figures for woodwinds and horns in the first movement. The second-movement ‘Waltz’ is the satirical heart of the work and pulled-off well were the grotesque effects such as violinists playing with the backs of their bows and the sinister glockenspiel. Osborne silenced a hitherto rather bronchial audience with an encore – ‘Oiseaux tristes’ from Ravel’s Miroirs – playing it with rapt and shimmering beauty.

Steven OsbornePhotograph: © Ben EalovegaFollowing the interval Mena was a breezy and companionable guide through Schubert, the conductor keen on swift speeds, a maintained momentum with few of the sudden pull-ups that are often endemic with other conductors. The initial horn theme was bold and nicely turned. There was sprightly woodwind detail although the brass was rather blustery and a greater sense of symphonic ebb and flow would not have gone amiss. The Andante con moto was well-judged in its buoyancy and made lilting with gracefully moulded string lines and a fine oboe solo, Mena almost dancing. Following the climax, that marvellous moment of silence followed by softly plucked strings – as if from another sphere – was sustained at a slower speed. The Scherzo with its flashes of lyricism and juddering key-shifts was well-handled , light rather than rustic, and then the Finale was vital and propulsive but there was a lack of weight for the closing blaze of glory. It was a fine reading (if shorn of most repeats) with many presentiments of Mendelssohn, but a greater sense of the work’s dark mystery was missing.

Nevertheless, one left the Royal Albert Hall knowing that the Symphony had done its job and that Schubertian ear-worms would be at work for days to come.

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