From France with love

PROMS 15 & 16 ROYAL ALBERT HALL AND RADIO 3 LONDON
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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY'S AND Wednesday's Proms featured the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with two of their past principal conductors. David Atherton, now Music Director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, conducted them on Tuesday in an all-French programme which began with a rarity, Poulenc's fizzy "choreographic concerto" Aubade, originally for a ballet about the goddess Diana to the composer's own scenario. Its very busy solo-piano part was played by Paul Crossley, in a frantic kind of way, with an 18-strong band of winds, a few strings and timpani providing the mock-solemn, sweet-sour confection that must have delighted the aristocratic Parisian party it was commissioned for in 1929.

This was a crisp little hors-d'oeuvre (though 25 minutes long) before the most serious work of the evening, Chausson's mesmerising Poeme de l'amour et de la mer, in which the soprano soloist was Amanda Roocroft. This is a long, sustained sing - nearly 30 minutes, with orchestral interludes offering strategic resting points - and Roocroft rose to the occasion serenely. As a Wagnerian, Chausson might well have approved of the steel in her voice, while without abandoning vocal composure, she brought out the bitterness in this lament for lost love.

As a display piece for organ, Saint-Saens's Organ Symphony is really nothing of the kind, and the organ part ought really to be played by a member of the orchestra or freelance extra, not a specially invited star. One of Simon Preston's most conspicuous occupations was counting the bars between his entries. The scampering upward scales for piano solo in the scherzo and tinselly writing for piano duet in the finale are gleeful gestures, and very individual. So although the whole work is great fun, it was only right that Preston should be given a proper solo spot with the opening variations from Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony. Too bad he didn't make much of a fist of it, with cramped rhythmic articulation and a mean show of the organ's vast array of stops which added up to a choppy total effect.

The highlight of Wednesday's Prom was the celebrated Symphony by Cesar Franck, which used to be a standard repertoire work, but its popularity has slipped quite a bit. Tadaaki Otaka, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales's Conductor Laureate, shaped it with loving, but not exaggerated, care, unfolding the music's evolution broadly yet with perfect naturalness, and inspiring first-class playing.

He also guided the orchestra with skill and discretion in Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto, in which the soloist was Louis Lortie. Otaka's task can't have been easy, for Lortie pushed his characterisation, particularly in the first movement, well beyond the music's essential elegance. In fairness it must be said that Lortie doesn't usually play like that: perhaps he got carried away by the brilliant Fazioli piano he had brought in specially.

Adrian Jack

Tuesday's Prom will be rebroadcast on Radio 3 this afternoon at 2pm

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