Paris (The Song of a Great City)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Mark Pullinger
Reviewed: 14 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Proms season here moved from one capital city to another. The First Night regaled us with the cries of street vendors in Elgar’s Cockaigne, a celebration of London. This latest Prom saw a trip across ‘La Manche’ for Frederick Delius’s affectionate depiction of Paris, completed in 1900. Charles Dutoit is not known for conducting Delius’s music (and Paris was a first for him), but given his affinity for French music, perhaps this particular composition by a composer who spent more of his adult life in France than England would be suitable to the Swiss-born conductor’s sensibilities. The evocative mists of the Parisian dawn, echoing with street cries from oboe and bassoon over rumbling double basses sounded Debussian enough, but the composer most vividly brought to mind come the full sunrise was heralded by joyous trumpets was Richard Strauss. Delius had studied in Leipzig and Strauss’s influence on his glittering orchestration is apparent. Delius’s tone poem is an episodic affair; he never quite draws the threads together, other than to return full-circle with the pre-dawn cries recalled before the close. Dutoit coaxed beautiful playing from the RPO, however, especially the romantic duet between oboe (John Anderson) and leader Duncan Riddell. The raucous piccolo (Helen Keen) characterising the goatherd playing his pipe also projected well.
We stayed in Paris for Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.2, premiered in that city in 1868 with the composer as soloist. It has remained the most popular of his five piano concertos, its three movements wildly different, including a brilliant scherzo. Benjamin Grosvenor gave a performance which focused on the intimate, poetic aspects of the score. The serious Bach-like opening movement, which begins with piano alone before the orchestra seems to frown its disapproval, found his playing tender, treating it almost like a Chopin nocturne. If the second movement wasn’t as brilliantly sparkling as it can be, it could well have been because Grosvenor and Dutoit seemed slightly at odds regarding tempo, Dutoit pulling back the reins whenever the pianist tried to nudge forward. The tarantella-driven finale came off rather better, taken at quite a lick and allowing Grosvenor to conclude with a bravura display of pianism. He offered an encore of more Saint-Saëns, via the hands of another wizard of the piano, Leopold Godowsky, his arrangement of ‘The Swan’ from Carnival of the Animals, full of limpid tone and rippling arpeggios.
The evening concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony which improved immeasurably as it went on after an inauspicious start. The introduction lacked any real sense of darkness and the strings seemed tentative until the welcome injection of the brass which, although not without occasional flaws, gave the performance the kick-start it required. Despite this, Dutoit didn’t offer a great deal of forward momentum in the first movement, making it less histrionic and more classical than the norm. The Andante cantabile second movement featured some glorious horn-playing, despite an unfortunate blip in the opening solo, and a sense of brooding and anguish was belatedly established, with Michael Whight weaving his clarinet solos tenderly. The oboe solo after the climactic statement of the Fate theme was fabulously shaped. The lilting third-movement ‘Waltz’ was notable for some very individual muted tone from the fourth horn, although the chattering woodwinds were not always together. The finale was highly successful, the string tone warmer. Dutoit, conducting from memory, paced events without undue haste, but gave the brass its head to blare out the ‘Fate’ theme splendidly in (hollow?) triumph.