A Prom of two halves, the first visit of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall began with a curiously earthbound account of Dvořák’s New World symphony. Conductor Marin Alsop has already recorded this piece to good effect for Naxos with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, but despite the quality of musicianship on show here there was a distinct lack of wattage in the performance.
Tempo speeds were largely on the faster side, which meant that the famous Largo did not get much room to breathe, to the extent that its leading cor anglais solo, though affectionately played, found its phrases heavily constricted. Elsewhere the rhythms were crisp and well defined in the faster music, but the playing lacked genuine force and conviction, the notes all in place but the expression of them curiously removed.
Brass and percussion returned after the interval for two fanfares, and the concert got properly into its stride. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was a powerful call to arms, as it should be, while Joan Tower’s response piece to this, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, dedicated to Alsop, was similarly energetic, the percussion in particular delivering a virtuoso performance.
This set the stage nicely for the transfer from North to South America, and the colourful Momoprécoce of Villa-Lobos, effectively Brazil’s national composer. The florid concertante part for piano was brilliantly played by Nelson Freire, who judged the level of his contribution perfectly, the sparkling virtuosity contributing much to the overall texture. The eight movements charmed and delighted, especially in the atmospheric start to The Little Jester’s Shepherd’s Pipe the pick.
Finally a hop across the border to Argentina, where Ginastera’s Estancia suite was waiting, a four movement tour de force for an orchestra now noticeably warmed up. Alsop, too, was a much more driving force from the podium, swaying to the syncopated rhythms as she secured a highly charged and strongly persuasive performance. The Malambo provided a winning finish, brilliantly performed and geared to a thunderous climax.
Two encores followed, with a ‘frevo’ from North Brazil, orchestrated by Edu Lobo, the highlight, a samba full of energy. The Prommers unveiled a Brazilian flag, to the delight of the orchestra, and the audience went home wreathed in smiles. It took a while, then, but we got there in the end!