Exquisite Chopin from Seong-Jin Cho with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 42 – Elgar, Chopin and Strauss: Seong-Jin Cho (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.8.2023. (CS)

Seong-Jin Cho (piano) with the Philharmonia Orchestra © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Edward ElgarIn the South (Alassio)
Frédéric Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Richard StraussAus Italien

This British summer has been, well, very British – a bit of a damp squib, literally and figuratively.  But, the sun was shining as I strolled up Exhibition Road on my way to this Prom by the Philharmonia Orchestra, with their Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, in which they offered a splash of Italian warmth in the form of Elgar’s In the South and Richard Strauss’s ‘symphonic fantasy’, Aus Italien.

Speaking of weather matters, it was a gloomy British winter that Elgar was hoping to escape when he travelled to Italy in November 1903, only to find ‘cold, rain & gales’.  He wrote from the seaside resort of Alassio, in January 1904, ‘The Symphony will not be written in this sunny (?) land’ and decided to focus on a ‘Concert Overture’ instead.  But, that very day the sun came out, and stayed; and that concert overture, In the South, was quickly finished.  The influence of Richard Strauss is obvious, both in its form – although titled an overture by Elgar, it’s really a 20-minute tone poem cum one-movement symphony – and the virtuosity of Elgar’s orchestration.

If Elgar’s speed of work was breakneck, Rouvali’s approach was more leisurely.  Certainly, the springboard leap which launches the work was vivid and vigorous, the horns glowing, the string sound sumptuous.  And following some nobilmente dignity, there were beautiful woodwind solos, from the bassoon and clarinet especially.  But, while these quieter episodes need to relax, as Elgar pulls the tempo this way and that, they also need to retain momentum.  The striking force of Roman might – both creative and violent – was felt, in the weighty dialogues between strings and brass, if not quite what Elgar described as its ‘grand relentless’ energy.  Those swinging timpani thuds, those off-beat accents, need to sound a bit more terrifying.  The moonlight episode was magical though: exquisite solos from the viola and horn floating upon a tranquil sprinkling of harp and divisi solos violins – utterly ravishing textures.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Rouvali’s first concert as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia, in October 2021, was an all-Strauss programme – Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Alpine SymphonyAus Italien – the 22-year-old composer’s retracing of his first, five-week journey through Italy in 1886 – is not so colossal, but there was certainly a sense of scale here, with the Philharmonia strings stretching to the far reaches of the RAH stage.  Rouvali’s habit of fervently flinging both arms out wide seemed both an embrace of his multitudinous players and an embodiment of the youthful confidence and excitement of Strauss’s instinctive reaction to various Italian cities and sights.

Rouvali manoeuvred his large forces through Strauss’s sometimes self-indulgent tourist itinerary with a sure step.  There were lovely points of detail – both delicate and voluptuous – in this series of musical picture postcards recording the composer’s Italian sojourn.  The long string lines in ‘Auf der Campagna’, Strauss’s musical memory of the view of the sunlit Campagna from the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, were lustrous, and grew in intensity towards the first dramatic release.  There were contrasts of ambience and emotion in ‘In Roms Ruinen’ (Among Rome’s Ruins), including martial splendour and melancholy studiousness.  ‘Am Strande von Sorrent’ (On the Shore at Sorrento) was wonderfully gentle, the concluding ‘Neapolitanisches Volksleben (Folk Life at Naples) a feast of vibrant tarantellas and local colour – with respite from the frolics provided by a becalming recurrence of the first movement’s main: a hint of yearning to return to the start of the journey, as it reaches its close, perhaps?  Rouvali built towards that conclusion skilfully, adding layers of colour to the bustle until the final explosion of exuberance.

As well as such details, there needs to be a sense of a flowing sweep too – some of those sights and sounds need to be lightly landed upon if Strauss’s travelogue is not to become an overlong list of ‘what I saw on my hols’.  Postcards are supposed to be pithy and punchy, after all.  But, if sometimes this Italian progress did feel a bit ruminative and rambling, Rouvali generally sustained the narrative trajectory.  Strauss’s departure from conventions necessitates careful handling of the form, and Rouvali’s negotiation of the transitions within the movements was thoughtful.  If a truly sure sense of the ‘whole’ was lacking, then Strauss doesn’t help a conductor of this score, and Rouvali, while staying the right side of the line between exuberance and vulgarity, certainly brought high spirits to those moments when the sunlight floods in.

Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition at the age of 21, seemed to have brought his fan-club with him to the RAH, which was packed to the rafters once again.  His performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto wouldn’t have disappointed the aficionados, or anyone else for that matter.  He swept aside the long, heavy-footed (Chopin’s not the Philharmonia’s) orchestral introduction to the Allegro maestoso with playing of wonderful grace and glitter – always commanding but refined too, the virtuosity as lightly worn as the piano flourishes were dexterously airborne, winging their way like magical sprites across the RAH.  In the Romance, the voicing was pinpoint, the articulation subtly shaded, the cantabile melody creamy velvet.  Chopin described this movement as ‘a sort of meditation in beautiful spring weather, but in moonlight’, and if this moon magic didn’t make time stop still for the listener, then nothing would.  The Rondo had a delicious sense of daring and dash – and the Philharmonia matched him for drama and panache.

There was also strong partnership between Cho and Rouvali, the pianist repeatedly leaning towards the podium, Rouvali glancing over his shoulder.  In a programme book interview, Cho notes that they’ve performed together many times.  “I can comfortably say I feel that he is my musical soulmate!” he remarks, and there was certainly a sense of shared purpose and pleasure in this performance.

There’s no doubting that Cho both makes Chopin speak and himself has much to say about the Polish composer’s music.  But, there’s a fine line between interpretative artistry and risky hamming.  Cho’s encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb Op.9 No.2, was either a breath of fresh air or musical meddling, depending on where you draw your line.

Claire Seymour

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