This fascinating programme, entitled Relishing in Revolution, curiously placed Saint-Saëns and Debussy after a first-half Eroica symphony, a piece more accustomed to pride of place as the centrepiece of a concert programme. While it was probably the Eroica which brought in the crowds, Beethoven’s great symphony felt sadly under-rehearsed and inconsequential in comparison with the magnificent playing in the post-interval French works.

Ben Gernon © Hannah Taylor
Ben Gernon
© Hannah Taylor

Ben Gernon, in his first concert with the BBC Philharmonic as its Principal Guest Conductor Designate, conducted with baton-free fluidity all evening. This suited the rich colours and soft edges of La Mer infinitely better than it did the Eroica. The sound flowed without the slightest hint of a rough edge while keeping a firm grasp on the complexities of the score. Solos from leader and cor anglais were elegant and beguiling, while the lusciously full textures of the cello section’s divisi chorale at sunrise gave way to a similarly golden outpouring from the brass in a couple of spectacular tuttis. With flutes, bassoons and horns led by guests from the LSO, RLPO and LPO respectively, there was much to admire in both the orchestra’s innate sound as a whole, and, especially in the Jeux de vagues, that of its guest principals.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Opera Omnia
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Opera Omnia

Sharing a platform with Saint-Saëns would no doubt have pained Debussy greatly, so it was perhaps fortunate that Benjamins Gernon and Grosvenor drew as stark a line between the two great French composers as Debussy could have hoped for. Saint-Saëns’ Piano concerto no. 2 in G minor of 1868 spared two desks of strings from platform duties (as did the Beethoven), and so the orchestra’s sound was instantly airier and altogether lighter of foot. Grosvenor’s presence at the piano was similarly feathery, particularly at the heady tempos set in the latter two movements. After the brooding darkness of the Andante sostenuto, his remarkable technical facility permitted a wonderful flightiness in the piano line which was attractively supported by horn and woodwind solos. The tarantella finale, launched from the piano at a breathtaking lick, was thrilling in its insatiable dance to the finish line.

It was a pity that the musical inspiration and tight ensemble which defined the second half was so sadly missing from the first. The advantage of placing Beethoven’s titanic, ground-breaking third symphony at the head of a concert programme might have been to allow the epic first movement to sound as fresh and shocking as they would have done two centuries ago, and as bold as La Mer did tonight. From the smudged “ba-dumph” of the second chord, however, one couldn’t help but feel that it was not quite being treated with the usual reverence or imperious power usually afforded to it. Ensemble throughout the orchestra was lacking within sections, and multiple solo entries were tripped over. Gernon’s beat in the towering first movement was mostly a fluid one-in-a-bar which, despite making for some elegant accounts of the famous rising theme, perhaps compromised the rhythmic energy and precision of the orchestral playing.

Only rarely did the dramatic tension rise above lukewarm, notably so at the fortissimo recapitulation of the first movement and in the sprightly third movement. The slow movement was more matter of fact than profound, undermined by untidy bass grace notes and rushed woodwind solos. The finale, though more technically solid, felt somewhat too polite to really relish in the revolution.