Mindful of the commemoration of the Great War, last Friday’s prom opened with Alfredo Casella’s Elegia eroica – a work for large orchestra from 1916 and dedicated “in memory of a soldier killed in war”. Casella’s angst-ridden 15 minute elegy is both a tribute to the Italian wartime dead and an attempt to bring modernism to an Italy still fixated on opera. Giving its proms première was the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic and its Italian Conductor Laureate Ginandrea Noseda who made a valiant effort to present a case for a composer last featured at the proms in 1928. There were some impressive and imaginative orchestral effects; notably the blaring sound of six horns at the outset, the polytonal string textures (reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark) in the central episode and the coda’s soothing flute and celesta duet. But Casella’s orchestral textures were so dense sometimes that the full weight of the orchestra often fell short of the necessary heft for the work’s explosive moments.

Gianandrea Noseda © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Gianandrea Noseda
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

 After this lavishly scored work, Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor seemed like a limp watercolour, yet it neatly pointed up the concerto’s elegance and wealth of tunes (which the Elegia eroica lacked) with one exquisitely decorated aria-like melody after another. It was interesting to observe the fresh-faced Benjamin Grosvenor (22) perform a virtuosic work written in 1830 when Chopin was merely 20: its first performance in Warsaw effectively launched his career. A baton-less Noseda drew some very eloquent shapes from solo horn and bassoon and much warmth from the strings in the nocturne-like Romance, and while its sense of reverie was beautifully fashioned any emotional depth was largely absent. If a spiritual dimension was missing in this slow movement, so too, was a sense of fun which could have been injected into the witty Rondo. Its exhilaration was never in doubt, but some degree of communication would have done much to demonstrate that Ben Grosvenor has more than just a brilliant and effortless technique.

After the interval the soloist reappeared to take the piano part in César Franck’s once fashionable Symphonic Variations. Noseda’s assertive tempo produced a vivid account of the work where fluid pacing of the alternating mood and tempi is crucial to the success of this largely undemonstrative work. Particularly memorable was the delicate passage for piano and muted strings where soloist and players now readily communicated their enthusiasm, stilling the near-capacity audience to mesmerised silence. Thanks to this lovingly crafted performance Franck’s poetic charm shone through in spades.

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

Poetic charm was also much in evidence in the slow movement of Saint-Säens’ Symphony no. 3 in C minor, where organist David Goode made his first quiet entry, and where the gradation of string tone by the BBC Philharmonic was superbly achieved. All the sections revelled in their individual contributions with thrillingly crisp articulation from the strings in the opening movement and incisive fanfare figures from woodwind and brass in the third. Four hands at the piano added sparkle in the closing Maestoso, but it was timpani and organ that had the last word with Noseda just managing to steer the orchestra, unperturbed by his flailing hands in the closing bars, to a magnificent carnival-style conclusion.