Prom 43: Grosvenor/RPO/Dutoit Prom 44: London Sinfonietta/Academy Ensemble/de Ridder, Royal Albert Hall

 

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The Independent Culture

Playing Liszt’s second piano concerto in last year’s opening Prom was nineteen-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor’s big coming-out, but he’s still studying at the Royal Academy, and carving out a niche combining Chopin and Liszt with light showbiz.

The virtue of Saint-Saens’s second piano concerto, which he played in Prom 43 with Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic, was that its second and third movements allowed him to stay where he likes to be, on the sunny side of the street, while the first let him deepen his sound. With its majestically arpeggiated figurations, the opening might have been a Bach-Busoni organ arrangement, and that was the spirit in which he delivered it; he gave the first movement proper the requisite nobility, part Beethovenian and part Chopinesque, with crystalline passage-work and a cadenza with no trace of affectation. The rest of this work is a romp, and if Grosvenor didn’t quite equal the hurtling brilliance of his mentor Stephen Hough in the Presto, he wasn’t far off it. His encore, a Godowsky-style filigree embellishment of the swan’s song from ‘Carnival of the Animals’, was exquisite: for pianism’s Team GB, a gold.

As a trip down musical modernism’s memory lane, Prom 44 with the London Sinfonietta under André de Ridder promised more than it delivered. It was a nice idea to juxtapose key works by the high priests in apostolic succession, but what we discovered was that works which are designed primarily to shock date faster than those which are not. Xenakis’s ‘Phlegra’ was shown to be a mere period piece, as was John Cage’s legendary ‘4’33”’; Andriessen’s ‘De snelheid’ (‘velocity’) was a flatulent orchestral reworking of the idea which Ligeti had caught so sublimely with his 100 metronomes in ‘Poème symphonique’ twenty years before; Berio’s ‘Sequenza V’, in which a clown sings through his trombone, was old fashioned Sixties Dadaism; our friend Youtheaudience was roped in to set hundreds of mobiles going at once, with pleasant if unremarkable results. But in Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Mortuos plango, vivos voco’ we got a nine-minute masterpiece which made everything else worth the wait. He had recorded the bells of Winchester cathedral, and also his chorister son: putting the sounds through a computer, he turned this vast hall into an intimate, sacred space.

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