Proms 69/70: Lewis/RSNO/Deneve; Ensemble Matheus/Spinosi, Royal Albert Hall (3/5, 5/5)

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The Independent Culture

Playing all Beethoven’s piano concertos at the Proms with a variety of conductors and orchestras was always going to be a trial of nerve for Paul Lewis, and he’s come through – if not covered in glory – at least with colours flying.

Tackling the ‘Emperor’ concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Stephane Deneve, he scored most effectively in those sections of the work where a refined allusiveness is called for: he spun out the first-movement development with graceful poise, and his cadenza was exquisite.

But as a whole, his performance of Beethoven’s most titanic concerto was under-projected. It didn’t help that the outer movements were taken a shade fast, but time and again what should have stood out in bold relief in Lewis’s playing came across like words half-swallowed. The orchestral playing, meanwhile, lacked sparkle and bite. With close miking Lewis probably sounded more incisive on radio, but he displayed none of the swagger needed to make this piece work in this vast hall.

Framed by Berlioz’s ‘Roman Carnival’ overture and Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’ – both stylishly delivered – this oddly-constructed concert also included the London premiere of three interludes from James Macmillan’s opera ‘The Sacrifice’, but even at 15 minutes that work’s compositional hyperactivity was a strain on the nerves. However, the late concert which followed, in which Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his period-instrument Ensemble Matheus made their Proms debut, royally redeemed the evening.

It was primarily a showcase for contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the amazing French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky, and to hear the latter sing a Porpora aria originally written for the great castrato Farinelli was a revelation. Jaroussky’s sound is extraordinarily clean, pure, and expressive, with immaculate control in rapid coloratura passages. Meanwhile Lemieux has a huge battery of effects in her vocal locker, with a baritonal richness at the bottom; she’s also a consummate drama-queen, which came in handy for her deranged lament in Vivaldi’s ‘Orlando Furioso’. But the joy of this concert lay as much in how Spinosi and his band of string players interacted with the singers, and with their brilliant flute and recorder soloists; surrounded by the delicate tracery of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins RV 513, we were in string heaven.