Prom 49, Royal Albert Hall, London/ radio 3

Less ferocity, but still extraordinary pianism
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In my review of Prom 41, I wrote that attendance was down this season.

In my review of Prom 41, I wrote that attendance was down this season. It just goes to prove that you shouldn't believe what you are told, even if in this instance a surprising number of thin audiences seemed to confirm it. The BBC hastens to correct me: revenue is already up 3 per cent on last year, with attendance showing a similar improvement. And the recent run of big names – Temirkanov, Wand and Haitink among them – brings the number of sold-out Proms to 24 to date. One concert, though, that was always going to pack 'em in was Martha Argerich's performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto.

The enthusiasm generated by an Argerich appearance is heightened by her reputation for a readiness to cancel, adding a will-she-won't-she tension to the excitement, and the applause that greeted her in the Albert Hall had an intensity vouchsafed very few. In the event, her playing wasn't quite what it might have been, though they yelled her to the rafters and called her back again and again. What was missing was the tigerish ferocity that used to fuel her performances; word is that she has been seriously ill, which may have sapped her strength. But it was extraordinary pianism none the less, with a thrilling rhythmic security that brought its own thrill, an absolute dexterity in Prokofiev's finger-defying textures, and a spontaneity that allowed her to seize on little details and breathe fiery life into them. And even if she wasn't producing the bigness of sound of yore, she compensated with the ability to project a pianissimo right to the back of the hall.

Charles Dutoit's account of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, with the NHK Symphony Orchestra from Japan, showed up weaknesses both in the orchestra and in his view of the music. Dutoit's tempi were generally too fast and the relationships between them ill-judged. He made insufficient use of the often stark dynamic contrasts in the score, although at one point in the slow movement, he brought the strings down so low that you could hear the fierce concentration with which the Prommers were listening – and the distant wheeze of someone asleep. For all the orchestra's long pedigree – it was founded in 1926 and has had several distinguished chief conductors – the playing was clinical, precise, without passion. There were, as well, problems of ensemble and intonation: the cellos in particular fouled up their big tunes in the Prokofiev finale and Shostakovich slow movement – though they managed to redeem themselves at the end with Glinka, the encore.

It was the opening Ceremonial by Takemitsu that showed the band off best. Opened and closed by a solo on the sho, the Japanese bamboo mouth organ, finely played by Mayumi Miyata, Ceremonial is a beautiful study in pastels, lines from the orchestra threaded around the hall by three satellite groups, each a flute and oboe. Its gentle autumnal stasis reconciles Orient and Occident.

Martin Anderson


This Prom will be repeated at 2pm next Monday on Radio 3