‘I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again’. So said Saint-Saëns of his Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1886), more commonly known as the ‘Organ’ Symphony. Be that as it may, Robert Maycock is correct to point out that the symphony ‘has long had its detractors, mainly people who can’t stomach a vivid, prolonged and grand noise’. Personally, I struggle to share the view of the disparagers (do they all own defective CD players that jump the entire second movement?), and especially so after hearing the performance of the BBC Philharmonic, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, which achieved exactly the right balance between restraint and bravado.
One of the most notable features of the first movement was the absolute precision and uniformity in bowing across all of the strings, which proved perfect at capturing the Mendelssohnian character of the first central theme. Then in the second movement the organ glided in exactly as it should, playing the part of an instrument within the orchestra rather than that of a soloist, and making the passage that does require hyperbolism stand out, precisely because the rest of the delivery was so much more sensitive.
The energetic strings triumphed once again in the third movement through their disciplined approach, while the Maestoso of the final movement saw the rippling piano matched once again by exquisite bowing that brought out every last difference between the mystical first, and fully blown second, appearances of the theme. Here organist David Goode had the opportunity to project the organ to thrilling effect, and with the Albert Hall’s huge instrument and vast interior making it the perfect place to witness this movement, I emerged from the overwhelming experience feeling that this was the closest I had ever come to being beaten up by a symphony.
The ‘Organ’ Symphony was the final piece on the programme, and before the interval Benjamin Grosvenor was the soloist for Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830). Grosvenor first appeared at the Proms as a 19-year old in 2011 and it has been fascinating to see him develop year after year since then. His performance here felt highly mature and polished, introducing emotion and a sense of purpose through the clarity and cleanness that he brought to his sound. In comparison, his playing of Franck’s Symphonic Variations – for piano and orchestra (1885) after the interval initially felt just a little more pedestrian. Whether correct or not, my first assumption was that he had not mastered this composition to the same degree as the Chopin, but very soon he was back to bringing to the fore all of the textures and subtlety that the piece demands.
The evening began with Alfredo Casella’s Elegia eroica (1916), which takes us through a funeral march, an episode of sorrow, a ‘fusillade of death’ and a lullaby. On the one hand, it seems hard to believe that on its premiere the ending of this highly intriguing composition was drowned out with protests. On the other, if someone were expecting a traditional patriotic hymn to the fallen, it is easy to see how this modernist piece, which is sometimes melancholy and sometimes candid in its expression of what war is really about, could have left them up in arms.