Prom 29: BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda – Casella & Saint-Saëns – Benjamin Grosvenor plays Chopin & Franck

Elegia eroica
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Variations symphoniques
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78 “avec orgue”

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

David Goode (organ)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 8 August, 2014
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the BBC Philharmonic at BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouThis was a good old-fashioned Proms programme. To the casual listener Alfredo Casella’s Elegia eroica, from 1916 – dedicated to the Italian dead of World War One – sounds like a combination of Busoni in the quite passages, of which there are many, and Respighi in the loud ones. This is misleading. Although Casella developed his musical language at the same time as his two great contemporaries, he also created his own personality. The 17-minute Elegia eroica uses a large orchestra to maximum effect at the very opening, barrages of sound that soon disappear to an almost inaudible level, the two states alternating, and ending in silence as tribute to the fallen. This was superbly projected by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic – very experienced in this composer through their recordings for Chandos – attentive to the music’s changing scenery and the tragedy Casella was witnessing as a stout Italian nationalist.

Benjamin Grosvenor at BBC Proms 2014. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouIf Benjamin Grosvenor’s playing were not so beautifully poised and crafted, his two appearances at this Prom, together with a forthcoming lunchtime recital, could cause uproar from the many similar British pianists who deserve at least one outing in any Proms season. But Grosvenor is special, if on this showing more so in Chopin than in Franck. We take Chopin’s two Piano Concertos too much for granted. In the year of composition he was working in the shadows of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn and yet his music heralded the entry, along with Weber and Berlioz, into the altogether different world of romanticism. Grosvenor emphasised this aspect, never pushing the music to places it does not need to go; it may need a virtuoso but it helps not to emphasis the pyrotechnics too much. The slow movement was particularly beautiful. In César Franck’s Symphonic Variations, a rarity these days in our concert halls, Grosvenor was less drawn into its magical world. But it was still a pleasure to reacquaint with a composer whose music oozes beauty of sound if not quite of the same level of substance. Noseda, baton-less in the Chopin, drew some wonderfully expressive orchestral playing, which enhanced Grosvenor’s two performances to great effect.

Camille Saint-Saens’s Third Symphony, which includes an organ in its colourful large-orchestra scoring, was premiered in St James’s Hall in London, conducted by the composer, and deserves the spacious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall and its splendid organ. I swear the audience jumped a foot off the ground when this instrument thundered in to herald the opening the finale (its only other appearance is to quietly underpin during the slow movement). Noseda opened the Symphony in a rather cool, detached manner but soon developed a real head of steam for the first movement’s development, a veritable fiery furnace of romantic emotions. The linked-to Poco adagio bought respite in its calm, languid manner before the high jinks of the scherzo (with piano/four hands in the dazzling trio) prepared us for the affirmation of the finale. The true merit of this performance was in the acknowledgment of the tremendous innovations the composer created in this 19th-century gothic masterpiece, a work of genuine structural originality combined with instrumental brilliance.

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