Who doesn’t like a musical celebration? In this Prom with The Hallé and its Music Director Sir Mark Elder respects were paid not only to the Royal Albert Hall, whose 150th anniversary year this is, including its Henry Willis organ, once dubbed “the Voice of Jupiter”, but also to one of the giants of French music, Saint-Saëns, who died exactly a century ago. After the domination of the Austro-German symphonic tradition for much of the 19th century, it was this famous child prodigy who with his grand Op.78 work avec orgue revitalised the genre.

Anna Lapwood (... and Sir Henry Wood)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

What a treat it was to hear Anna Lapwood at the start of the final movement unleashing the mighty roar of the 9,999 pipes, the music of this composer with its mixture of delicate intimacy and dazzling rhetorical flourishes seemingly made for the wide spaces of this auditorium. At the beautifully hushed start of this performance with sostenuto strings you were made aware of the grace, charm and elegance characteristic of the one composer Saint-Saëns most revered, namely Mozart. In all the softer passages, Elder was especially good at dovetailing the inner string lines, weaving them together to form a finely spun web of delicate colour. This was most obviously the case in the Poco adagio slow movement, where references to the godliness of Gounod were uppermost in the mind.

Sir Mark Elder conducts The Hallé
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

But Saint-Saëns would not be Saint-Saëns without all those other elements which matter just as much as the sublimity of ethereal writing for the strings. Amongst the darker shadings is the spectre of the Dies irae which haunts every movement of this symphony, a tribute in passing to what Liszt did in his Totentanz and itself an indication of the way in which a thematic metamorphosis infuses the entire work. Just occasionally there were hints of menace from the lower brass, but little piquancy in the woodwind and few flashes of Gallic spirit which can make this Organ Symphony such a thrilling ride. Part of the problem was the absence of heft from the strings: there needed to be much more weight and sharper accents in the Scherzo. Elsewhere, the over-cautiousness both in the direction and in the playing meant that string lines above any p or pp marking never properly soared or were blessed with much tonal radiance. 

There was a pre-echo of the Symphony’s big bang in the opening work, the UK premiere of Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza. Right at the start Beethoven’s Coriolan overture reared its forceful head, yet despite the backward references to this composer I was struck more by its Mahlerian sound world, conjured up in parallels with the two Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh Symphony, not least in the snapped pizzicatos of the double-basses.

Benjamin Grosvenor and The Hallé
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There was another pre-echo in the cadenzas to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, in which the soloist was Benjamin Grosvenor. He played those by Saint-Saëns, and it was a tonic to be reminded of two things. First, there are many alternatives to the standard ones by the composer himself, all worthy of consideration, and second, a cadenza is designed to be a virtuoso display. Here, and in his encore, Liszt’s dance of the gnomes in his Gnomenreigen, Grosvenor demonstrated the qualities which have marked him out as a front-line artist: crystalline articulation, sparkle and brilliance in colouring, bravura control in rapid passagework. In the concerto he and Elder established a fine partnership, engaging in a real dialogue between individual voices. Grosvenor’s playing was unfailingly beautiful but ultimately a little one-dimensional in its self-effacing character: Beethoven the pussycat but without any leonine roars.