As musical farewells go, this was a memorable one. The BBC Philharmonics chief conductor chose three Cinderellas of the nineteenth century repertoire for his outgoing Proms concert: Beethovens Fourth Symphony, Saint-Sanss Fifth Piano Concerto, and Liszts Dante Symphony.
Dashed off between the ground-breaking Third and the monumental Fifth, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat is perhaps the least loved of Beethovens mature symphonies. But its modesty disguises its considerable charm and inventiveness. Noseda presented the work as a beefy Haydn tribute, investing it with all the spirited joy of Beethovens one-time musical tutor. Nosedas influence in shaping the BBC Phils string section paid off handsomely in the first movement, with its soaring principal theme;the ensemble playing during the third movement scherzo was top notch.
Astonishingly, Saint-Sanss Piano Concerto No. 5 in F had not been performed at the Proms for over ninety years. The rapturous reception that greeted Stephen Houghs playing may well correct that oversight. Subtitled Egyptian because of its Orientalist themes during the second movement, the concerto is an exhilarating work flashily vulgar in parts, but also hauntingly affecting. Hough appeared to make light work of the fiendishly difficult writing in the frenetic first and third movements, while reserving his considerable tact and sensitivity for the Egyptian second movement.
Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic made sterling work of Liszts Dante Symphony. The first movement depicts the torments of Dantes Inferno, focusing in the central section on the fate of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. The parallels with Tchaikovskys Francesca da Rimini of 1876 are clear: lugubrious brass and woodwind, swirling chromaticism depicting the descent to hell, and yearning strings and harp to represent the lovers. The BBC Philharmonic painted a detailed picture, with only the brass sounding a little subdued.
The second movement (Purgatorio) demonstrates how Liszt often came unstuck over matters of form. The melodic themes for most of the movement are plain and overstretched, although in describing the long wait for heaven, this was perhaps Liszts intention. For the listener, though, the central section sagged heavily until the final sung Magnificat. This section predicting the rise of the spirit towards heaven was genuinely uplifting, and sung beautifully by female members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with the briefest of solos from soprano Julia Doyle.