Unlike the other two Proms I’ve reviewed this season, last night’s by the Philharmonia did not have any bells and whistles when it came to the staging, nor did it explore the edges of the repertoire. But the repertoire choices were good: progressing from the chamber orchestra forces of the first two pieces to finish with Mozart’s last and beefiest symphony, although Mozart at his beefiest is still no Bruckner.
The originally-billed Esa-Pekka Salonen withdrew from the concert and his late replacement was Paavo Järvi (pictured below). He clearly enjoyed himself, conducting with a wry smile through Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and enjoying the right/wrong notes of Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto.
Ravel's suite was written during World War I in tribute to deceased friends. But I can never hear it as tragic: rather the Baroque-tinged dances seem to celebrate life and movement. The focus of the orchestration is the oboe, with solos in each of the movement. Tom Blomfield was brilliant, fluid in the intricacies of the “Prelude”, spry in the dotted rhythms of the “Forlane” and languid in the middle section of the “Rigaudon”.
The tempos were fast – requiring some fleet horn playing by Diego Incertis Sánchez – but with a pleasing give at the ends of the lines in the “Menuet”. Ravel conjures untold colours from his chamber orchestra, but the bite of the woodwind playing was the lasting impression.
There is also bite in Shostakovich’s concerto, which reduces the orchestra to strings alone, but adds a solo trumpet, acting as an alternative pole to the piano, a pithy commentator often bringing things back down earth. Jason Evans, the principal trumpet of the Philharmonia, was making his first appearance as soloist with them. He was suitably brittle in the outer movements, but found a wistful tone in the slow movement, muted, bluesy, and more than a bit Hollywood.
Benjamin Grosvenor (pictured below) flew through the difficulties of the fast music. He has a high, active finger action and bold sound, relishing the restless, almost manic good humour of the first movement. In the slow movement he focused on the counterpoint between the hands, sometimes, I felt, at the expense of the right hand’s cantabile line.
The last movement is an energetic gallop encompassing a drunken folksong on the trumpet and a muscular piano cadenza – Grosvenor was driven – before the trumpet ends things with a staccato tattoo. It’s an ending that demands audience applause and its lack was like a delivering a punchline to silence.
It took a while for me to warm to Järvi’s take on Mozart’s "Jupiter" Sympony (No.41). I found the fluctuating tempo at the opening a bit mannered and it all felt a bit purposeless after the propulsion of the earlier pieces. The transition into the development section was virtually leaning backwards. But things got better.
The second movement had a delightful chamber feel to it, with the musicians listening to each other as much as watching Järvi. Viewing at home I was disturbed by a very loud helicopter overhead, which I was cursing before realising I could just pause the livestream and resume when it was gone. Not a luxury enjoyed during “in the flesh” concerts!
The Menuetto allegretto danced, Järvi conducting with a broad smile and big round gestures that gave the music a rolling gait. The final movement is the crowning glory of this symphony, and a suitable finale to Mozart’s symphonic output. Here the natural trumpets soared, the period timps had edge – but I felt sorry, here and throughout, for the bassoonists, who seemed a bit meanly treated by the sound mixer. The climax, when the five themes are combined in triumphant counterpoint, is irresistible – but it always gives me pause to think that Mozart probably never heard it. Everyone deserves to hear it.