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Classical review: Prom 4 Roth/Les Siecles, Prom 6 Tsujii/Mena/BBC Phil

Royal Albert Hall, London

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto always draws the crowd, and when conductor Juanjo Mena gently escorted the diminutive Nobuyuki Tsujii to the front of the stage and pointed him towards the audience, the other reason for the packed house came clear: people are entranced by this Japanese pianist’s back-story. Born blind, he spent his childhood giving concerts in Japan, and burst on the international scene by winning the Van Cliburn competition at 21. His career since has been both stellar and closely sheltered: Rach Two in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, where there is nowhere to hide, would for him be a major test.

His opening chords were spectral wisps but they swelled to a ripe fullness, after which he was off in an interpretation of notable restraint and refinement. There were times in the first movement when the BBC Philharmonic all but drowned him, but he dominated the Adagio with easy grace, giving its lyrical lines a sweet sincerity, and avoiding all temptation to milk the music for emotional effect. His way with the Scherzo was beautifully judged, with brilliant passage-work and exuberant power. His encore – Liszt’s “La campanella” – was exquisite. 

It’s often said that the sound of period instruments compares to that of modern ones as candle-light does to neon, and so it was in the Prom by Francois-Xavier Roth and Les Siecles. Roth and his ensemble apply the notion of instrumental ‘authenticity’ to repertoire from all eras, and their concert of French ballet music made a fascinating journey. For music by Lully, Roth kept time by beating on the floor with a stick as Lully himself had done (though carefully avoiding the composer’s ultimate mistake - stabbing himself in the foot, thus causing a fatal gangrene). Both the Lully and the Rameau dances which followed had a lovely mellowness of timbre, as did the excerpts from Delibes’ Coppelia, where the valved cornets and natural horns created effects very different from those we are used to.

Swapping instruments for the next gear-change, they attacked Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a manner which overturned all contemporary expectations. The score we usually hear is the easier-to-play one with which Stravinsky replaced his original, altering textures in the process. Roth’s way with the 1913 version was wonderfully subtle, bringing out its Russian-ness, giving the familiar contrasts a nimble freshness, and at times revealing a whole new palette of colour.