Prom 30: Sinfonia of London/John Wilson, with Alim Beisembayev

Lili Boulanger
D’un matin de printemps

Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18

William Walton
Symphony No. 1 in B flat minor

Alim Beisembayev

Sinfonia of London
John Wilson

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 6 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

A genuinely full house reflected John Wilson’s special status at the Proms even if the Royal Albert Hall audience likes him best as the man who extended the concept of authentic performance to the work of the great twentieth-century songwriters and their arrangers. The encore, in which his reincarnated Sinfonia of London shone with a special lustre, rather proved the point. A fairly obscure Nelson Riddle orchestration of the second of Gershwin’s piano preludes, it formed part of the John Wilson Orchestra’s 2015 Late Night Frank Sinatra-themed event, classy indeed. Tonight it was treated with the same idiomatic care, respect and spaciousness.

The concert had begun with another short piece, Lili Boulanger’s increasingly familiar D’un matin de printemps, first heard at the Proms as recently as 2017. It is not the most progressive of her surviving works, much of it sounding like discarded chunks of Debussy’s Images or Nocturnes, but it does have an atmosphere of its own, incorporating some unexpected swatches of darker colour. The BBC lighting team, no doubt taking its inspiration from spring flowers, gave the orchestra a vibrant green surround pockmarked with pink. TV cameras were in place to capture the sickly effect. The playing was glorious in every department.

Standing in for an indisposed Benjamin Grosvenor, Alim Beisembayev (winner of the 20th edition of the Leeds International Piano Competition) brought his distinctive soft sparkly touch to Rachmaninov’s masterpiece without finding a comparably novel interpretative path. While his expansive opening was unaffected by currently fashionable nostrums he seemed reluctant to follow through with anything too self-conscious or grand. Wilson’s orchestra had no such qualms, providing many original touches and, in the Finale, a huge Hollywoodish ending big on vibrato. The problem being that the pianist was not always audible in the hall. Encores are given too readily these days and while Beisembayev certainly impressed with a torrential arrangement of the ‘Infernal Dance’ from Stravinsky’s Firebird the BBC’s fiery lighting scheme betrayed the fact that we were always going to get the thing, come what may. A stunt maybe, but it came off.

Less so the main event which was, or should have been, the Walton. As sometimes happens with this conductor it felt as if we were listening to an amazingly accomplished final rehearsal, the Symphony’s emotions rather left on the shelf in a drive to articulate its fabric with maximal clarity. In the Finale the mistake was to adopt a basic tempo fractionally too fast for the music to breathe. Yet even in the opening movement, where Wilson achieved a remarkably extended dynamic range, things felt dogged, oddly schematic. No complaints about the obsessiveness of the malicious scherzo though some surprise that its barbs were not more wittily pointed. The slow movement did not affect me as it can but then for listeners of a certain age it is hard to get André Previn and the LSO out of one’s system and there was nothing whatever wrong with the present reading. (Revisit August 1970’s Previn performance from the Proms online and you’ll discover a supercharged mess though it was not always so.) An elegant presence on the podium, Wilson still has a way to go on this evidence. His Straussian reluctance to do much with his left-hand may or may not contribute to a certain rigidity of outcome.  At his best he is already unbeatable. Not so here.

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