In many ways this was the concert I’ve been yearning for. For eighteen long months I have hankered wistfully to be in a concert hall, packed to capacity with a large orchestra including double brass, sax, contrabassoon, tuba and lots of percussion. This one ticked all those boxes with two handed piano and the massive Royal Albert Hall organ thrown in for good measure.
It was very neatly linked programming too with Unsuk Chin’s homage to Beethoven subito con forza leading to Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto which used the Saint-Saens cadenzas as a pathway to the latter’s third symphony. Joined-up thinking was the order of the day.
Chin’s piece, commissioned for last year’s Beethoven celebrations but, perforce, not heard in the UK until now, is full of Beethovenian chords, cadences, rhythms and snatches of melody offered and then snatched away by a battery of percussion. It’s good fun, very ingenious and Elder ensured that we heard and enjoyed every strand.
It’s always a treat to hear Benjamin Grosvenor play Beethoven and an especial pleasure to hear the beautiful fourth which doesn’t get quite as many outings as the third and fifth. I liked the emphasis on the filigree texture in the first movement and the Elder’s cheerful focus on every orchestral interjection. Sir Mark smiles a lot from which I infer that he really is having as good a time as the audience is. In what was, a warm, friendly but unshowy performance there was gentle passion in the melodious adante with a moving segue into the last movement.
The Saint-Saens cadenzas were interesting but far too heavy and “Romantic” for what is, in essence a classical concerto, notwithstanding its unusual opening. I’m glad I heard them, and understand exactly why they fitted this context, but I certainly wouldn’t want them as my go-to version of this concerto,
And so to Saint-Saens in all his glory. The performance of the 1886 third symphony Organ was magnificent from its quavery first movement (I can’t be the first person to detect a nod to Schubert 8 in there?) to the marvel of Anna Lapwood, making her Proms debut seated at the organ a very long way from Elder at the front of the distanced Halle orchestra – whose pizzicato work, by the way, is exceptionally effective. Lapwood brought tender lyricism to the lovely melody in the poco adagio and then all the dramatic grandiloquence that the last movement requires. “Excitement” is an overused word but it really was extraordinarily exciting – almost awe-inspiring – to hear the Royal Albert Hall resonating to that huge sound as the final chords blasted over the timpani. If I were several decades younger I might say “wow!” and capitalise it.