The August Bank Holiday saw a heatwave hit London, and the temperature in the Royal Albert Hall was not particularly pleasant as promenaders gathered to see the Proms debut of Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru who this season takes over the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. Under his baton, the BBC SO gave a rewarding programme of Eastern European music, starting in Măcelaru’s native Romania with a Proms premiere of Silvestri’s Three Pieces for Strings before moving solidly into Russia with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor and Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor. A rewarding combination on the whole: the Silvestri an interesting prelude to the two heavy duty works which balanced each other well, the former zingy and with a contemporary punch, the latter a more expansive, Romantic piece.

Seong-Jin Cho
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

This was the first occasion on which anything by Silvestri has been performed at the Proms, although he himself appeared as a conductor in a concert in the 1960s. As with many conductor-composers of the 20th century, his time in music was largely dominated by the baton rather than the pen and certainly in the UK he is known virtually exclusively as a prestigious chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra rather than a composer in his own right. His Three Pieces dates back to the 1930s, though he subsequently revised the work in 1950 and is an interesting clash in tradition – the Romanian folk heritage is palpable, though treated lightly – with modernity in bitonality of the third of the three pices. Măcelaru brought lush and expansive playing from the BBC SO, with some particularly appealing moments from the leader and the cellos, and Măcelaru managed to strike the right level of tension in the third piece.

Seong-Jin Cho, joined Măcelaru on stage as soloist in what he had, in a brief interview for the programme, proclaimed to be “the most well written piano concerto of the 20th century”. His performance certainly seemed to live up to his conviction. The thoughtful opening to the Andatino was pellucid, a trickle of notes of complete clarity and his attack on the ferociously difficult cadenza was precise and determined, energetic without quite giving into total frenzy. The key to the success of the first movement lay in the total synchronisation between Cho and Măcelaru; considering the orchestral forces playing against the piano, to achieve the level of balance that let Cho’s playing emerge through huge orchestral moments with heavy brass was quite an achievement. The BBC SO shone here, with some superb playing from the woodwind and real richness to the brass as the finale erupted. The slightly mad Scherzo was again played with deft finesse by Cho, but wasn’t quite helter-skelter for personal taste; he was a little too much in control. Măcelaru again had the orchestra at just the right level of balance, the little flourishes from the strings nimble, the clarinets pert and fresh. The third movement had plenty of character and was played by Cho with technical flair, soft shimmers rising from the keyboard and lingering against almost balletic strings. The finale was played with force, but lacked the startling energy of the attack on the first movement cadenza. The Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F major was a refreshingly cool encore to a blistering performance.

The second half did not quite match the achievements of the first; perhaps due to heat (which seemed worse after the interval), the BBC SO did not seem to have the same energy and Măcelaru did not manage to unite his forces to create a convincing reading of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The first movement lacked tautness and seemed to meander somewhat without an obvious impetus behind it; things picked up a little with the Allegro molto, brisk and coherent, a supple brass opening opened into a generous sweeping strings. A superb clarinet solo, plangent and elegant, gave depth to the Adagio which Măcelaru paced a tad too fast but without losing too much of the ruminative quality of the movement. An energetic final movement nonetheless seemed a little underpowered in its finale.