Wednesday 15 August 2012

Subtle Saint-Saëns from Benjamin Grosvenor at the Proms

Last night’s (Tuesday 14th August 2012) BBC Prom featured the outstanding young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor. The programme included Delius’ Paris: The Song of a Great City and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E minor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under their Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit.

In his early tone poem, Paris, Delius had still not fully developed his own distinctive style, yet in this work there are atmospheric moments where the mature Delius can be heard. Charles Dutoit managed to bring out the Delian feeling in these passages and did his best to bring some cohesion to this rather sprawling work.

From the beginning it was evident that Benjamin Grosvenor’s view of the Saint-Saëns was never going to be barnstorming. This pianist has far more subtlety than that. There was thoughtful and wonderfully fleet and nimble playing whilst Dutoit brought out many beautiful details, particularly in the woodwind.

Grosvenor’s virtuosity came to the fore in the final movement where Saint-Saëns puts great demands on the pianist. Perhaps there were some repeated passages where there was too much emphasis but overall this was a tremendous performance.

We even got an encore in the form of Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’ The Swan from his Carnival of the Animals. Godowsky never spared the pianist in his transcriptions and paraphrases but Benjamin Grosvenor had the measure of this work with some terrific playing.

Whilst Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is always likely to please a Prom audience it must be difficult to bring something new to this work. Dutoit’s conception of the work appeared to one of darkness and restraint. From the tentative beginning there was beautifully controlled playing. This holding back was very effective as when he allowed the orchestra their head the impact was all the more great.

The second movement in particular was dark and brooding with only occasional light allowed to appear. This restrained approach did not work so well in the third movement with its waltz theme. The final movement was again taut and heavy until the music gained momentum and the orchestra was fully allowed its head.

Despite many fine moments, the feeling of constantly holding back did tend, at times, to make this a slightly frustrating performance. 

See other Prom reviews:

Last Night of the Proms 2012 with Nicola Benedetti, Joseph Calleja and Team GB’s Olympic medallists

A Memorable Concert from Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic at the BBC Proms

BBC Prom - Max’s Ninth, fine Delius from Tasmin Little and an Impressive Shostakovich Tenth from Vasily Petrenko

A Battlefield at the Proms

Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music as they should be played

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