Proms 2011: David Fray and Jaap van Zweden

The pianist's account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 leaves Nick Shave cold

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It’s not hard to see why the young French pianist David Fray is often compared to Glenn Gould. When he plays, Fray hunches over the piano (like Gould, though not as low to the ground); his nose practically brushes the keys, and he often swings his elbows out wide, seemingly coaxing the sound from the piano. At major cadences, he lifts clear off his chair, lurching into the piano, and throwing his hands out wide in an odd flailing gesture.

For his Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, it was noticeable, too, that he pulled up an ordinary chair, not a stool, to the piano. How long before he, like Gould, brings his own structure to sit on?

I could go on and mention the burbles and frequent hand-drying rituals at the keyboard, but only to suggest that such idiosyncratic gestures – however unaffected – seemed more distracting than helpful when it came to communicating the themes at work in Mozart’s K503. Fray has recorded this Concerto – well received – with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Jaap van Zweden. Here he played with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic – and it felt like an uncomfortable fit.

First, there were problems of balance, with the soloist too often paddling in the background, or worse still, swallowed up by the orchestra. And while that may partly be blamed on the Hall’s soupy acoustics, the lack of clarity in the line of the music had more to do with Fray’s interpretation: individual phrases were often beautifully rendered, and imaginatively coloured, but his stop-start mannerisms detracted from the flow and delineation of the whole. If Fray’s Mozart is tasteful, then it’s a taste I’ve yet to acquire.

Any suspicions that not only the soloist – sporting a pale complexion and hair that might have been modelled on Chopin’s – but also the orchestra might have felt more comfortable in Romantic repertoire were confirmed in the second half when Van Zweden took on Bruckner’s colossal Eighth Symphony. From the outset, with its shimmering tremolandos, the NRPO showed itself capable of vividly conjuring atmosphere, endlessly varied within Bruckner’s journey from darkness to light.

Like Fray, Van Zweden brought a range of unusual gestures to the stage. In dance-like motions he would lean back from the orchestra with his arms fully outstretched, waving his baton as though casting a spell across the players. And clearly his magic worked.

Prom 60
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K503
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor
David Fray (pno); Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls