Proms 2011 – BBCP/Noseda – Stephen Hough plays Saint-Saëns … Dante Symphony

Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Piano Concerto No.5 in F, Op.103 (Egyptian)
Dante Symphony

Stephen Hough (piano)

Julia Doyle (soprano) & CBSO Chorus (women’s voices)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gianandrea Noseda. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgMaking his final appearance with the BBC Philharmonic as its Chief Conductor, Gianandrea Noseda directed a lengthy programme of meaningful contrasts. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony (1806) is not so often given as a concert opener these days, yet its Haydnesque appearance (is this, in fact, the first neo-classical symphony?) makes it eminently suitable as such. Noseda and the BBCPO’s Beethoven cycle may have been more notable in its blazing a trail for musical downloads than its interpretative qualities per se, but the present account was far from without incident – at its best in the alternately virile and ingratiating scherzo, then a finale of bracing humour and pointed non-sequiturs. Earlier, the first movement felt a little over-emphatic after an introduction ominous yet purposeful, but if the Adagio seemed at all constrained rhythmically its expressive subtleties were often in evidence. No doubt Noseda will delve further into this music as his career progresses.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaThe evening continued with the fifth and last of Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos (1896), a work which seems to have come in from the cold over recent years. And why not, as its Mozartean duration and deftness of manner made it an ideal foil in an otherwise avowedly symphonic context. Stephen Hough is hardly a stranger to this piece and his performance was, for the most part, as urbane and as resourceful as the music warrants. Thus the sonata-form obliquities of the first movement were unfailingly well savoured in themselves and yet brought together in a convincing unity, while the fantasia-like construction of its successor was as lucidly unfolded as the wistful resonance of its Nubian source was delicately inflected. A pity that in the finale Hough opted to drive the music so hard, its innate effervescence bordering on the ruthless for all that Noseda and the BBCPO were equal to the task. Hough’s own transcription of Massenet’s song Twilight then made for a poetic encore.

Liszt has been a mainstay of Noseda’s tenure with this orchestra, and it was appropriate that their contribution to the Proms’ focus on this still-misunderstood figure comprise the rarer of his two symphonic compositions. Indeed, the Dante Symphony (1856) has only been given at these concerts on two earlier occasions: in 1904, when Henry Wood directed what must have been one of that season’s main novelties; and in 1986, the climax of an all-Liszt programme in which James Conlon oversaw a performance that lingers long in the memory. Not that Noseda’s account was a disappointment, but it did rather sell this admittedly problematic piece short.

Problematic because Liszt’s musical representation of Dante’s Divina Commedia is a product of the Romantic imagination whose essence is hard to convey in an era so distrustful of such intended naivety. Yet it is worth recalling that early audience members fled during the opening ‘Inferno’, whose outer sections contain some of the loudest and most visceral orchestral writing then conceived (though its requirements are notably less than, say, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique). Noseda had its measure, even though the Albert Hall acoustic inevitably reined-in its impact, and he might profitably have allowed its glowering accumulations a little more time to resonate. Similarly the central section, in its eloquent evocation of the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, needed more space with which to project its silences and echoes – for all that the emotional build-up was not without fervency. Nor were the stark unisons of the coda sufficiently fateful in their finality.

The ‘Purgatorio’ that follows needs time for its gradual formal process and expressive opening-out to unfold, without which the movement paradoxically seems the more unfocussed. This, for all Noseda’s audible care as to balance and detail, was what happened here: the central fugato, in particular, was rushed through such that its contrapuntal rigour barely registered, while the music on either side was overly restless in its expectancy. Yet the transition into the setting of lines from the Magnificat which forms the ‘Paradiso’-like apotheosis was delectably handled, with the latter being distinguished by singing of great purity from the ladies of the CBSO Chorus (and Julie Doyle in her solo entry) – their contribution enhanced by being placed high in the Gallery and facing away from the audience as if caught up in an encroaching mystery. Had the reading evinced greater intensity and inexorability in reaching this point, such a conclusion would have seemed even more affecting.

Conversely, the reaction of an already nonplussed audience might have been the more bemused. Yet that was not the case at the end of Conlon’s performance a quarter-century ago, leading one to wonder if the essence of such music has become ever-more remote from an era oblivious to anything other than its own satisfaction.

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