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REVIEW: BBC Phil, Beethoven, Liszt, Saint-Saëns

Jonathan Payne finds perfect balance in a strong programme

Written by . Published on February 3rd 2015.

REVIEW: BBC Phil, Beethoven, Liszt, Saint-Saëns

THIS WAS a wonderful and wonderfully programmed concert. A complete sell-out, the audience delighted in a soloist, orchestra and conductor all at the top of their game.

The conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, peerless all night, led the orchestra with a virtually aerobic display, bouncing on his toes, sweeping low and almost dancing during the minuets. 

I half-thought a concert consisting of Beethoven's 8th Symphony, Liszt's 2nd Piano Concerto and Saint-Saëns' 'Organ' Symphony might be a little too rich, but with each piece lasting around the half-hour mark, the intensity and diversity were in perfect balance. 

We were treated to the pieces in chronological order. Part of the interest here was seeing how each composer built upon their forebears, how the symphonic repertoire was altered, or innovated. A concrete development was evidenced in how the orchestra physically grew in size, eventually enveloping the whole stage: the Beethoven had twelve violins, three double basses and two trumpets for example, expanding for the Liszt and ending up with 26, seven and five respectively in the Saint-Saëns. The volume increased alongside the innovation. 

 Gianandrea Noseda


Gianandrea Noseda


Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F major was a delight. It looks back to a more rhythmic, 'classical' form, but there are more changes in tempo and shifts in mood in the first movement than in most complete symphonies. My companion summed it up in two words: 'Capricious. Lovely.' I've always thought that Beethoven conveys humour and wit more than any other composer ...so I was entertained by the children's Journey Through Music insert in the programme.

Simon Webb, the BBC Phil manager, mentioned this insert in the pre-concert talk, saying how much he had got out of it. I hadn't realised that the translation for the second movement's Allegretto schezando actually means 'Brisk and jokingly'.

The conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, peerless all night, led the orchestra with a virtually aerobic display, bouncing on his toes, sweeping low and almost dancing during the minuets. 

The Liszt, as was to be expected, was more tempestuous. The soloist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, was extraordinary. The piece is played in a single movement, and his rapid shifts between near violence, pounding left hand and then a melodious trilling as his right little finger flickered out repeatedly was enthralling. Mid-way through his hands seemingly rivuletted down the keyboard. The moving duet between solo cello and piano had the audience rapt, and the finale, as the whole orchestra united, was explosive. 

Bavouzet's performance, to these ears, was actually topped by his encore. His interpretation of Debussy's Feux d'artifice (the last of his 24 Preludes), with its sustained waspy buzzing, flickering tremulous colours and fragmented sparks was engrossing. 

Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 is in two movements, and was the first symphony to not only use the organ (hence the nickname) but also four hands on the piano. All six hands made their presence felt, but Jonathan Scott at the organ unsurprisingly had the greater effect.

When the first low chord appears there are a few seconds as you wonder where the low growl emanates from. In the second movement, when it crashes in after being beautifully set up by some teasing orchestral writing, there is no doubt. (The woman reading the programme next to me jumped as if shouted at.)

The second movement recycles the thematic material; it is disported around the brass and strings and woodwind in different, propulsive variations. It actually brought to mind some 70s' motorik Krautrock. The motif grows in intensity, punctuated by a faultless kettle-drummer, until the crashing exclamatory coda. Faces red with effort, the musicians of the BBC Philharmonic and the conductor were washed with prolonged, merited applause. 

The concert took place on Saturday 31 January and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date.

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