The absence of an interval made Prom 22 a heady injection of Russian music, the skittish flair of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C Major followed almost immediately by the grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor. The concert was deemed to be somewhat of an event by virtue of Isata Kanneh-Mason making her Proms debut and there was a definite buzz in the Royal Albert Hall as she made her way to the piano with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales principal conductor, Ryan Bancroft. 

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Isata Kanneh-Mason
© BBC Proms | Yusef Bastawy

That buzz was justified by the technical flair and virtuosity that Kanneh-Mason brought to her performance. Her colouring was bold, Impressionist in some respects (particularly in the first movement), but not at the expense of detail: notes shimmered, but held their tangible form. There was a lightness of touch at times, the sound gentle and balletic, which belied the complexity of the writing. The tricky central part of the first movement was dispatched with almost insolent nonchalance, the precision of the runs immaculate. She was at her best in the quieter moments though; there were points in the first and third movement when her sound seemed to lap gently against the woodwind, whose players were on excellent form with a particularly fine clarinet solo to open the piece. In contrast to Kanneh-Mason, the BBC NOW’s playing as a whole never entirely caught fire despite the merits of individual players. The strings early on seemed strangely leaden and it was only as we made our way into the second movement that the orchestra seemed to gain in confidence. This was very much Kanneh-Mason’s half and the audience response was justifiably warm. If perhaps a touch of depth in her reading was lacking, this will surely come in time. Alas, no encore!

By contrast, the BBC NOW seemed far stronger in the Tchaikovsky, delivering a rounded, plush performance. Brass sound was clean and even-toned, with limited duds – always impressive in a piece in which they are so exposed – and a fine horn solo in the second movement while a certain brightness in the violins in the first movement gave luminescence to Bancroft’s reading. Notable too was Christina Slominska’s rounded playing of the timpani, at its best in the fourth movement. Bancroft had a way of building up the climaxes, edging the tension and layering the details, though the post-climax did slightly seem once or twice to be less adroitly judged – less a cigarette and a cuddle, more a rush to dress and exit the bedroom. Nonetheless, an elegant and passionate performance of a symphony which, with less care, could sound stale.