The Philharmonia Orchestra is blessed with wonderful players. In last night’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, Paavo Järvi took evident delight at having been invited to conduct them, stepping in for Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, quarantined in Finland. Järvi looked like everyone’s favourite uncle, radiating beaming smiles throughout the proceedings, swaying elegantly to and fro at the lilting of dance rhythms, casting admiring glances at a well turned oboe solo from Tom Blomfield or a flute line from Charlotte Ashton.

Paavo Järvi © BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou
Paavo Järvi
© BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou

The unusual orchestral forces and layout – reduced numbers of players and increased distance between them – did not appear to worry the players in any way. Performances were crisp and precisely together. It seems strange to suggest that spreading musicians out in such a huge space could lend more of chamber music feel to proceedings, but that’s indeed how it went.

For a piece written as a memorial to friends killed in the First World War, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is a remarkably cheerful work: in this performance, it was imbued with gentility and unbounded good humour. Perhaps we missed the thickness of a full string orchestra, but the fluidity and accuracy with which the Philharmonia followed Järvi’s shifts in tempo and accenting made up for this to a fair degree.

Benjamin Grosvenor © BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou
Benjamin Grosvenor
© BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou

Järvi was also blessed with a star soloist for the evening’s concerto in the shape of Benjamin Grosvenor arriving at the keyboard for Shostakovich’s Concerto for piano, trumpet and strings, supported by Jason Evans, the Philharmonia’s principal trumpet, making his Proms debut. I have to stop thinking about Grosvenor as a “young artist”; for several years now, he’s just reached the stage of being a top class musician, irrespective of age. This concerto must be incredibly difficult to play, not because of a need for virtuoso fireworks but because it’s so mercurial; Shostakovich throws in an inexhaustible series of mood swings. Grosvenor was able to sound gorgeously lyrical and impassioned in the slow second movement but flip in a heartbeat to impish humour or powerful angst, Järvi sculpting the orchestral sound around him and Evans contributing the muted trumpet’s distant complaint. Here is a work which suited the small format: the smaller instrument count enabling each to be clearly distinguished by the ear. The third movement gave us more chance to enjoy the sound of the low strings, who provided a prominent base before and then below the helter-skelter that followed, combining Grosvenor’s precision at the top end of the keyboard with flutter-tongued athleticism from Evans. There was more good humour as the trumpet delivered fairground stuff before we headed to the finish at a gallop.

Jason Evans © BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou
Jason Evans
© BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou

Of the three works, Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony suffered most from the format, achieving neither the Karajanesque big band effect of a full orchestra nor the briskness and intensity of accenting of a small, tight period ensemble. I can’t fault the accuracy or the intent of the playing, but it was difficult to feel involved. The intimate lilt of Sibelius’ Valse triste, played as an encore – strange term in these circumstances – was more persuasive.

For all the musical quality, the video experience feels strained. I’m not convinced by the limited selection of camera angles three-quarters-on shots of individual players and a single face-on view of the conductor, ensemble shots from a low angle. It feels odd to have a presenter’s comments and pre-recorded interviews with the musicians aired between works, accentuating the artificiality of playing without an audience in a setting that’s so familiar when it’s full.

With these broadcasts, the BBC Proms have maintained continuity and given us some high quality music to enjoy. But I can’t wait to be back in the hall for the real thing.

Philharmonia Orchestra © BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou
Philharmonia Orchestra
© BBC Proms | Chris Christodoulou

This concert was reviewed from the video live stream

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***11