Sunday 25 January 2009

Benjamin Grosvenor and the Philharmonia

After last night's horrors, anything the Philharomia did this afternoon was going to be a breath of fresh air. However, even had that not been the case, it would still have been worth attending.

I hadn't originally planned to, but, for reasons already outlined, tonight's LSO concert was abandoned (by your correspondent, if not anyone else) after Donald Runnicles dropped out. However, the Philharmonia programme seemed a more than ample alternative. The principal enticement was not the orchestra, the conductor or the music, but rather the presence of young pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. The sixteen year old musician first came to my attention back in 2004 when he won the piano section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, before it was dumbed down out of all recognition. He should have won the whole thing, but, in keeping with the fact that nobody I want to ever wins these things, the judges gave first prize to Nicola Benedetti. He impressed not simply in his ability in getting around the keyboard with such small hands, but in the beauty and delicacy of his playing and the intelligence with which he discussed the music. I've wanted to hear him live ever since.

But first we had the orchestra on their own, conducted by Alexander Lazarev, in Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet. This provided a wonderful opportunity for them to showcase just what a superb instrument they are. The playing was beautiful in the slower moments and simply breathtaking when the score caught fire. Indeed, the players displayed a dexterity and a co-ordination that called to mind the Cleveland Orchestra, and I know of few higher compliments. I've said it before, but it eludes me how any group of critics could rank the LSO amongst the best orchestras in the world but not the Philharmonia. If there was a reservation, it would be there was too much contrast between these different parts of the work and Lazarev didn't entirely convince in how he went between them.

There was a brief pause as the stage was rearranged for the piano. The featured concerto was the Grieg, a wonderful work and one that is not, for my money, heard often enough in the concert hall. Grosvenor is now nearly five years older than when I last saw him and, as one might expect, his hands are now a size where merely traversing the keyboard isn't an impressive feat. He still retains a lot of the delicacy that endeared him to my ears, impressively so in the quietest moments. However, he has also found a lot of weight. For the most part this was of the Paul Lewis variety, in that it wasn't overly percussive and didn't consist of a lot of ugly thumping, but he needs to watch he doesn't go down that route. Lazarev's accompaniment could have been a bit more sensitive too. Nonetheless, it was a spellbinding performance.

He was warmly received and we got an encore, which I couldn't place with any certainty. However, I think it may have been some Chopin, possibly a waltz. Listening now on my computer, if I had to guess, I would have said it was op.34/1, but I may be off by miles.

The second half featured Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, making this the second time in three months I've encountered it in the concert hall. However, with a significant difference: last time round it was the Stokowski orchestration. Lazarev opted for the traditional Ravel and served principally, in my mind, to underscore the extent to which I feel the former is the superior. That's not that it wasn't nice to hear, and certainly the orchestra played it very finely: saxophonist David Roach and trumpet Mark David making especially impressive contributions. However, it felt nowhere near so richly evocative as when the RSNO played the Stokowski, which makes it all the more galling that Stokowski's stereo recording is currently deleted. Please Decca, get your act together: in these days of broadband internet, no recorded need ever go out of catalogue.

One other note should be made: these 3pm Sunday concerts seem incredibly civilised (not least as it would mean I could get back to Edinburgh without needing to take Monday off work). It was also nice to see so many children, almost all of whom were extremely well behaved (with the exception of one in a box, whose father decided that the best way to respond to his question in the quietest moment of the Grieg was to open his mouth as well).

Finally, I sincerely hope that the Festival Hall didn't waste a lot of money getting Sir Ian McKellen to do their mobile phone announcement; if they did, I can't help thinking it could have been better spent (not least reducing the programme charge from a rather extortionate £3.50, one thing you can say for the LSO is that at least they're free).


Anonymous said...

I agree, it was a very enjoyable concert and I also thought Benjamin Grosvenor's playing had both subtelty and strength. The encore was Alfred Grünfeld's "Soirée de Vienne" (including a fleeting reference to the Blue Danube, prompting the flurry of sotto voce laughter).

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for the update about the encore. Indeed I was far wide of the mark!

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