If this year's Delius anniversary glut – he was born in 1862 – has taught us anything, it is how difficult his music is to capture: beautifully idiosyncratic at best, but plain boring if wrong. Not only is his structural approach unique, unbounded by schema or formal moulds, but so too is his harmonic language, and his method of evocation, no more so than in his nocturne Paris: The Song of a Great City. Written in 1899-1900 at the end of his twelve years in the French capital, it marks the threshold of his 'mature' writing, conjuring together various enigmatic autobiographical scenes. And it is for this reason that Paris is especially challenging to perform, to make it cohere, and ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In the main, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's account under their artistic director and principal conductor, Charles Dutoit, was successful. Leader Duncan Riddell found particularly 'gay' charm in his solos, which flirted with the amorous waltz beneath it. Yet it all felt a little too clean, lacking a warmth of sound at the expense of precision, each portrait polished instead of cherished. Indeed, one wonders how long it is before Delius becomes the domain of 'period performance' ensembles, whereby the composer's soundworld is necessarily re-imagined, with the softer-spoken instruments and different expressive techniques. Certainly this performance could have benefited from a greater breadth to the sound and a gentler hue.
Yet, if Delius' characterisation of his beloved city is difficult to pull off for the subtlety of its illustration, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor becomes a challenge of outward embodiment. Written in 1868 as a vehicle for Saint-Saëns's own virtuosic display (under the baton of composer-pianist Anton Rubinstein), the concerto flies between purple and jocular ideas, always linked by dazzling keyboard gymnastics. Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist negotiated all of the passagework with apparent ease, his formidable technique clearly articulating even the most verbose phrases. More could have been made, however, of the moments of sheer frivolity, as in the second-movement Scherzo, as well as employing a slightly wider tonal palette – he sometimes favoured too brusque a sound.
With the broadest range of colour, though, came Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5, planned meticulously by Dutoit and executed persuasively by his players. Marked by its cyclic form – whereby a motto (in this case representing 'fate') appears in each movement – this symphony is a journey from darkness to light, requiring considered pacing and stamina.
The second movement showed notable executive thoughtfulness: a love-song – first sung so beautifully by the principal horn, Laurence Davies – it opens with naïve tenderness, innocent of its nature, and, in the hands of Dutoit, allowed a degree of introspection, as the music simply progressed rather than moved. Yet, as this love theme matures throughout the movement, Dutoit afforded a more assured warmth to the music, which contrasted all the more painfully with the dramatic restatements of the 'fate' motif: a brilliant musical argument.
Similar moments of detail distinguished this fine performance, such as the revelation of the muted horns during the bassoon's third-movement solo, or the the ensuing 'motor rhythms' in the violas. There was space and intensity by turns, and, even if there were moments that could have been better balanced – more a fault of the cavernous acoustic than uncontrolled playing – this was memorable music-making.
interpreter of French
music, begins with the
Parisian memories of an
Frederick Delius was
particularly fond of the city
and his unfairly neglected
nocturne for orchestra has
not been heard here since
1984. Benjamin Grosvenor, who hit the headlines in
2004, aged 11, when he won the keyboard final of
BBC Young Musician of the Year, made sensational
Proms debut appearances last year. He returns
in a Gallic concerto for which he has a special
affinity. Finally to St Petersburg for
Tchaikovsky’s rousing but equivocal triumph.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP