Prom 41 – Behzod Abduraimov (piano), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Benjamin Appl (baritone), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard
Ravel La Valse (1919-20)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15 (1795, rev. 1800)
Nielsen Symphony no.3 ‘Sinfonia espansiva’ (1910-11)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 17 August 2022
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photos (c) Mark Allan
There is a changing of the guard in Glasgow. On his way in as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is the conductor, composer and pianist Ryan Wigglesworth, an exciting and evolving artist. He will replace Thomas Dausgaard, who leaves City Halls after six years and is signing off with two consecutive Proms of symphonies by his Danish compatriot, Carl Nielsen.
We began this concert in Paris, however, with a distinctly chilly account of Ravel’s La Valse. The horrors of the First World War encroach into Ravel’s writing, and were all too audible around the edges in this performance, which was brilliantly played and lucidly controlled. The feather-light strings of the opening bars ensured the dynamic contrasts were extreme, and when the full orchestra cut loose towards the end the effect was both exhilarating and terrifying, the ‘fatal whirring motion’ of Ravel’s inspiration collapsing in the final bars.
Dynamic contrasts were a feature, too, in a fine performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.1, with soloist Behzod Abduraimov. The Uzbek pianist was the ideal foil for the clarity of the reduced forces of the BBC SSO, giving an affectionate performance notable for its dance-like qualities. There were occasional rhythmic indulgences in the solo party, but these were both tasteful and well-managed, with Dausgaard alive to his flights of fancy. The dialogue with the orchestra was often exquisite, especially when piano and clarinet (Yann Ghiro) linked in the slow movement. Time stood still for an early example of one of Beethoven’s heavenly silences, before the Rondo danced its way into the minds of the audience for the interval. Stylishly played and with some attractive, witty touches, this was an endearing account of high technical quality. Abduraimov’s encore was slightly at odds with the feather-light touches displayed in the Beethoven, being a heavyweight performance of Mercutio from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet transcriptions for piano. There were fireworks and great virtuosity, though the significance of choosing a Ukrainian-born composer should not be overlooked.
Dausgaard returned after the interval to conduct his compatriot’s ‘most Danish’ symphony. David Gutman’s ever-helpful Proms notes revealed that Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva was somehow not performed at the Proms until 1990, and even this was its first Royal Albert Hall performance in 23 years. It was a memorable encounter, the high voltage first movement immediately into gear with its repeated notes surging forward, bursting through the dam. The exultant first movement was complemented by the radiance of the second, with wordless vocals from on high in the gallery supplied by soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Benjamin Appl. The combination, over hushed strings, enchanted the hall and made the best possible use of its spatial options. Surrounding their contributions were winsome cadenzas from the BBC Scottish woodwind, portraying the great Danish outdoors with crisp outlines.
The third movement built its energy cumulatively, all the while pointing towards the finale, where we heard the Danish ‘ode to joy’ in luxurious tones from assembled strings and horns. This was music of wide-eyed optimism, galvanizing orchestra, audience and conductor alike to an emphatic signing off. With contributions from golden brass and thundering timpani, this performance was truly expansive – and served to emphasise what the Proms audiences have been missing with this symphony all these years!