sat 22/06/2024

Proms Chamber Music 7: Benjamin Grosvenor/Prom 60: Driver, RPO, Dutoit | reviews, news & interviews

Proms Chamber Music 7: Benjamin Grosvenor/Prom 60: Driver, RPO, Dutoit

Proms Chamber Music 7: Benjamin Grosvenor/Prom 60: Driver, RPO, Dutoit

Rainbow colours with a cooling shower or two in Proms showpiece time

Judith Weir: best BBC commission of the Proms season so far?Phil Fisk/BBC

After the enervating excesses of Salome and Elektra at the weekend, the abundance of notes at the Proms continued in a piano recital and an orchestral showstopper, but this time with built-in air conditioning. After all, both 22-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor and septuagenarian Charles Dutoit are absolutely in control of the colours they make, very occasionally too much so.

But it was a rainbow-hued day inside the Cadogan and Royal Albert Halls, culminating in a spectacular and perhaps unrepeatable Respighi triple bill of Roman impressions.

The Grosvenor happening (***) was a first in several respects for me: first time, despite all the best intentions, at a Cadogan lunchtime Prom, and first live hearing of a solo recital from the pianist already touted as a National Treasure (Private Eye will no doubt be on the watch). Does he live up to the hype? Well, he’s good, no doubt about it, technically breathtaking in conjuring up a full, stampeding orchestra as Liszt no doubt intended in his free transcription of Gounod’s Faust Waltz and velocity-thundering the terrific encore, a Dohnányi Etude. But to start with Chopin’s First Ballade meant going deeper, and while there were textures and inner lines here I’ve never heard before, neither the angriest flight nor the freest fantasy struck me as lit from within by pure imagination.

Benjamin GrosvenorThree pieces by the Catalan composer Mompou were small impressionistic beer. The first was beautifully rounded off, the mark of a true artist; but since we get so little of the far superior Albéniz in concert, it seemed like an opportunity wasted. Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales seemed stylistically wrong to me: no sense of exhilarating upbeats or waltz-rubato, the supernatural hauteur of the big chords or the haunting of the half-lights. Grosvenor (pictured above by doesn’t shred the Ravel filter on Johann Strauss like George Benjamin, busting a piano string or two, at Aldeburgh in the early 1980s or Khatia Buniatishvili in her do-I-hear-a-waltz-at-all massacre of the piano-transcription La Valse, but I wouldn’t rush to hear him in this composer again.

Suddenly, everything lit up – with no comparisons to make – in his world premiere performance of Judith Weir’s Day Break Shadows Flee, much the best of the BBC commissions and new, or newish, works I’ve heard at the Proms this season. This is a fine signing-in by Weir as Master of the Queen's Music, a role incidentally in which she might achieve much of social value. Passionately and lucidly tonal, the work has the kind of blinding light you hear in some of Britten’s most luminous pieces – though it’s probably coincidence that the refrain, a pentatonic rising figure, is the same as Billy Budd’s salute to his Captain, “Starry Vere, God bless you!”. The tension between slow, sustained chords and the blue-sky thinking veers more to Tippett, but the 10-minute piece has a purpose and an identity very much its own, an especially clamorous personality owing to Grosvenor’s sharp-focus tintinnabulations. Proof enough, too, that he has plenty of time to cultivate the depths if he doesn’t turn into a flashy virtuoso like Mark-André Hamelin. The essential imagination, though, I’m still not sure about.

Danny Driver at the PromsThat we have an abundance of fine British pianists, many of them far less feted and deserving better, was self-effacingly proved by Danny Driver (pictured right last night by Chris Christodoulou) in the rarity of the evening Prom, the original version of Walton’s Sinfonia concertante. No depths here, certainly, and a far more self-conscious homage to role models than Weir’s piece: the young Walton of the 1920s here favoured Poulenc and Prokofiev, virtually cribbing a theme from the finale of the latter’s Second Piano Concerto to spill over from the chameleonic first movement into the second. There are flashes of the individual Waltonian dash we know and love, but what the piece amounts to I’m not sure: music, perhaps, that doesn’t cry out to exist but provides plenty of vivacious pleasures, especially in this clear and charged performance.

The rest of the programme was of a Roman piece. From the first sally of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture the Royal Philharmonic sounded like an orchestra transformed to international calibre under Dutoit’s meticulous baton (****). He underlined every rhythmic and textural quirk of Berlioz’s restlessly individual personality, even if I couldn’t quite see the human bustle of the Mardi Gras in the scene from that testosterone-laden opera Benvenuto Cellini which the music adapts.

Charles Dutoit by Chris ChristodoulouGiven such sophisticated colours, it was already clear that Respighi’s three orchestrally resourceful sets of Roman sketches, so much more than mere picture postcards, were never going to sag or pall. Dutoit (pictured left last night) wisely began with the last of the triptych, Roman Festivals, tending to the gigantism of the early Mussolini years. We’d already had a whiff of that earlier this Proms season in the superb Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic’s championship of the suite from the ballet-extravaganza Belkis, Queen of Sheba.

In this first sequence I’d have liked a little more of the Turkish orchestra’s passionate Technicolor from the RPO strings – when will  British players really learn to unbend? – and a touch more abandon in the Piazza Navona at Epiphany. But despite the thrill of the three trumpets from on high heralding Colosseum death to the Christians at the start – we were in the right arena, in Panavision – and the crazy, when-shall-I-stop final gallimaufry, it was the layered poetry of the "October Festival" which captivated most. The late Calum (Malcolm) MacDonald, whose death this year came as such a shock, typically nailed it in the excellent programme notes as the "art of transition" turned into “a kind of cinematic 'dissolve'". The sleighbells and mandolin were a mere heightening of the atmosphere, no gaudy extras.

Triton Fountain by David NiceFountains of Rome, framed by more pure poetry in Valle Giulia at dawn and the Villa Medici at sunset, spotlit the subtle and lovely RPO woodwind, all of a piece – and how young is that exceptional oboist, John Roberts? The horns had their heyday with their held note keeping the Piazza Barberini’s Triton and his conch (pictured right by the author) in the foreground, as brilliant a highlight as any and launched with all the theatrical timing of Puccini, before Dutoit gave an exceptionally broad welcome to the sea-cortege of the Trevi Fountain.

With more dramatic impetus, Dutoit came almost immediately out of the silence of Fountains’ exquisite vespers into the children’s games by the Pines of the Villa Borghese. More orchestral solos justified their place in the sun: the beautifully vibratoed bugle call outside the catacombs, the clarinet meditation on the Janiculum (Tim Lines, first among woodwind equals) capped only by a nightingale recording of perfect liquidity. The audience, and the trilling strings, held their breath. The love-music swooning in between justified its place as a kind of eleven-o-clock number in the sequence, while Respighi’s harmonically adventurous march-crescendo for the Roman cohorts on the Appian Way was the only possible conclusion: bring it all on, the Albert Hall organ – essential throughout the Respighi sequence – and the offstage trumpets contributing to a glorious noise that managed to be deafening even in this setting, but never shrill: Dutoit kept the depth in the sound throughout. Result? A stunner, naturally.

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