This evening’s Prom, given by BBC Philharmonic, conductor Gianandrea Noseda, was one of those evenings which demonstrate the Proms’ claim to be “The World’s Greatest Classical Music Festival”. A full and attentive Royal Albert Hall audience heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, ‘Egyptian’, with Stephen Hough, piano; then Liszt’s Dante Symphony with Julia Doyle, soprano and the women’s voices of the CBSO Chorus.
Gianandrea Noseda’s Beethoven Fourth Symphony was played by a medium sized orchestra, which is slightly unfashionable nowadays for a Beethoven Symphony. Nonetheless, the conductor reigned back the strings (both first and second violins sitting on the same left-hand side of the platform) allowing more detail than would have been audible in a mid-twentieth century performance.Yes there were a very few couple of passages of rough ensemble but the solos were impeccable with very little slowing down of a cracking pace even for the (in)famous bassoon and flute solos. But this was still an intense, dynamic and above all, a meticulously controlled reading. A treat and a revelation to encounter a new reading of such a familiar piece. The performance received the full, warm acclamation of an audience appreciative and knowledgeable as only the Proms audiences seem to be.
Following Beethoven’s intellectual intensity with two late nineteenth century pieces seemed quixotic when I first saw the programme. Beethoven Fourth Symphony is by no means an overture. Stephen Hough playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ ‘Egyptian’ Piano Concerto, No. 5 in F major, thrilled with virtuosic brilliance instead. He played a piano solo as a delightfully tender encore.
Liszt’s Dante Symphony isn’t a familiar work but benefitted for the Albert Hall venue with the celestial chorus high up in the gallery, demonstrating another characteristic of a classic Prom programme: making unusual pieces accessible.
The logic of the programme seemed to be to show how Saint-Saëns Concerto was in part trying to be Chopin or Liszt and the Liszt Dante Symphony was trying to be Berlioz - the opening of the first movement, which describes Hell, is reminiscent of the Symphonie Fantastique and the celestial redemption in the final movement is reminiscent of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. The programme notes in addition pointed out the historical context of the Impressionists and Claude Debussy’s "Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune" and on the other hand, everything that Richard Wagner was accomplishing. Equally that you could hear elements of ragtime in the Purgatory movement of Liszt’s Dante Symphony. Overall, the programme revealed and made connections and made a very satisfying musical experience on many levels.
The other theme running through the evening was taking advantage of the extraordinary concentration of the Prom audience. The slow passage of opening of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony had Gianandrea Noseda extracting the maximum tension from the anticipation. Stephen Hough's encore was Massenet "Crépuscule" played quieter and quieter as the twilight fell in the musical image. And there were many other instances.
A Prom evening isn’t only the music: tonight has been one of the few fine and warm evenings of this summer. The walk from South Kensington tube station up Exhibition Road to Kensington Gore and the Royal Albert is mostly pedestrianised. The walk was always an intriguing transition from the bustle of South Kensington through to the shared purposeful stride to the Albert Hall, that transition has now become a delight as the High Victorian architecture of Exhibition Road has been revealed now that the cars have been almost banned.
And beware the ice creams on sale at the interval! Mine wasn't the only tub that was frozen so solid that it was impossible to even start to eat during the interval. It did melt sufficiently whilst I retook my seat but the usual idea is to eat the tub of ice cream outside the auditorium.
Monday 1 August
Royal Albert Hall
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major (34 mins)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, 'Egyptian' (27 mins)
Dante Symphony (41 mins)
Stephen Hough piano
Julia Doyle soprano
CBSO Chorus (women's voices)
Gianandrea Noseda conductor