Prom 43: Benjamin Grosvenor

The British pianist triumphs in Saint-Saëns

A chorus of bag zips accompanying Delius, phone alarm bells ringing during the start of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth: for a moment I thought I’d stepped into last-night’s experimental late-night Prom, perhaps into the performance of Cage’s ‘silent’ 4’33.  But no, I was in the evening’s main Prom, a colourful serving of orchestral scores from the Royal Philharmonic and Charles Dutoit.

Still, there were no interruptions to the quasi-improvised solo piano opening of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto, which sees the pianist transform Bach into a grand Romantic cadenza. In that passage, it already seemed clear that the soloist Benjamin Grosvenor was going to give a nuanced, magical and fearless performance. His sense of timing, gossamer touch, and playful character shone in the scherzando second movement, its throwaway ending raising an audible smile from the audience, while Saint-Saëns in 'serious' mood in the opening movement showed off his fuller-toned playing.

There were moments that didn’t come off  – a rushed horn solo, sharp woodwind tuning, and off ensemble between soloist and orchestra after a cadenza-like passage – but it was easy to enjoy the grand sweep of Grosvenor's playing. After the Concerto, he returned to play Saint-Saëns’s Swan in Godowsky’s arrangement, its filigree web weaving around the serene theme. A Gold-medal performance.

As a prelude to Saint-Saëns, Delius’s Paris had opened the concert, with the orchestra soon warming up into the sweep of the turn-of-the-century score. Like Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, the lively streets of Paris emerge out of the depths, one of those wonderful Delius openings full of promise. Written for large orchestral forces, Paris has an autobiographical programme, in essence a love-song to Delius’s adopted city. It hints at vivid Straussian colour, seems to have a spot of jaunty ‘Englishman in Paris’, and all dissipates in that rather Delian way, as if nothing had ever happened.

After the musings of Delius and eclecticism of Saint-Saens, the strength and directness of Tchaikovsky’s writing was thrown into relief. A symphonic grappling with fate and god, the Fifth Symphony is operatic in its drama, though often balletic in feel. The RPO and Dutoit gave a fluid, compelling performance. The music’s tragedy was heartfelt, with the opening clarinets suitably shadowy and foreboding. Darkly hued, the strings were, rightly, unremittingly sombre in the Andante cantabile’s opening, so that when the horn melody unfurls its vision of love, it seemed ineffably poignant, happiness just out of reach.

With the brass on good form, and despite some hurried moments in the Finale, the Symphony’s triumphant ending blazed with hope. Yet, even in the face of such optimism, it was hard to forget the torment that had preceded it, to forget those melancholic clarinets. As Andrew Huth’s excellent booklet notes observed, ‘there is always something fragile even in Tchaikovsky’s most positive statements’.