PROM 30: A Sparkling Prom from Bavouzet, Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 30. Borodin, Prokofiev, Edward Cowie, Tchaikovsky. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.8.2013 (RB)

Borodin: Prince Igor – Overture and Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op 16
Edward Cowie: Earth Music 1 – The Great Barrier Reef (2012-13)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op 17 ‘Little Russian’

This concert was an unalloyed triumph from start to finish and featured the BBC Philharmonic on blistering form, and a superb soloist giving a first rate account of one of the most taxing pieces in the standard classical repertoire.

The evening kicked off with the Overture and famous Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. Borodin never committed the Overture to paper and was fortunate in having played it to Glazunov on the piano: he committed it to memory and reproduced exactly what he heard. Following a slow burn introduction, triumphant brass entries signalled a change in tempo and Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic proceeded to give an assured and energetic account of the Russian dance material, with the principal clarinet and horn doing a splendid job with their entries. Noseda is a very energetic character on the podium – I was exhausted just watching him! – but the orchestra responded enthusiastically to his lead. The Polovtsian Dancessounded completely fresh and invigorated with the orchestra conveying the exotic charm and character of each of the dances and Noseda handling the tempo transitions in a very assured way. The perfumed scents and spices of the Orient were all very much on display in this performance.

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is a highly virtuosic monster of a piece which is not for the faint hearted. It is dedicated to a friend of the composer who committed suicide and it has a dark, sardonic character. In the opening movement I was struck by the clarity of Bavouzet’s playing and the way in which he clearly ordered and structured the thematic material. The opening octaves had a burnished lustre with Bavouzet doing an excellent job in projecting this dark and bleak melody to the back of the hall. He handled the fiendishly difficult first movement cadenza well, keeping the textures clean and highlighting the key thematic relationships while simultaneously negotiating the torrents of notes and awkward leaps. The semi-quavers in the moto perpetuo scherzo were played very fast indeed with Bavouzet demonstrating astonishing digital dexterity and Noseda keeping the orchestral entries clean and incisive – they needed to be in this performance! The BBC Philharmonic captured the sardonic character at the opening of the third movement while Bavouzet’s playing was slick and polished, bringing out the mischievous parody and black humour in the music. The finale was a sensational piece of playing with Bavouzet giving an adrenaline-fuelled account of the opening leaping theme and a beautifully worked and highly virtuosic cadenza. In the quieter sections he showed excellent control of tone production and dynamics – there was an emotionally distant quality to the music and the faintest hint of steel in the background. The coda was sensational and had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.

Edward Cowie’s Earth Music 1 – The Great Barrier Reef was a BBC commission and world première. The piece is a 10-minute depiction of various natural phenomena including a coral reef, shoals of fish and a barracuda hunt. There was a blaze of orchestral colour at the beginning and then various dislocated musical interjections depicting coral and fish. The BBC Philharmonic gave a committed performance and the composer was at the concert to acknowledge the applause at the end. I am afraid the piece itself did very little for me, however, and it is not something I could recommend or would want to listen to again.

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, which draws on Russian and Ukrainian folk songs. The introduction has the horn playing against pizzicato strings: it clearly draws on the opening of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major symphony and was played with real warmth and delicacy. The strings then cranked up the tension and played the ensuing Allegro molto with enormous energy and vitality. The second movement is a march, which was played with beguiling charm and simplicity and there were enchanting arabesques in the woodwind. The scherzo is a scampering movement and here the strings provided great drive and impetus while the woodwind provided some gorgeous colours and brought an effervescent quality to the music which is so quintessential to this composer. The finale opened with a gloriously rich tutti before Noseda let the orchestra off the leash to give us a brilliant and exciting finale.

Bravo to all concerned for a great concert.

Robert Beattie