This was a real matinée, in the proper sense of the French word. A morning concert is less of a rarity to continental audiences, but its incarnation here for a visit by the European Union Youth Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda is a further example of the way BBC Proms organisers have spread starting times over much of the day. That in turn raises the intriguing question whether there is an ideal point in individual periods of wakefulnesss for performers to give of their best and, equally important, for listening audiences to appreciate what they hear.

Seong-Jin Cho and the EUYO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Seong-Jin Cho and the EUYO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There was certainly no sign of bleary eyes, Sunday-morning blues or tour fatigue on the faces of the EUYO (the ladies all displaying their hallmark blue sashes) in the first piece they played. Receiving its UK première, this was a short composition by Agata Zubel celebrating the centenary of the formation of the modern Polish state. Written for a large orchestra, its title Fireworks already suggests explosions of colour. One could admire the palette on which the composer had drawn, with curling arabesques delivered by the wind, jagged interjections from the brass and recurring opportunities for excitable exclamations from the percussion. But that was about it: there was nothing approaching a melodic line and little in the way of structural signposting either.

Still only 19, Chopin wrote his first piano concerto (like Beethoven’s, numbered second) as if in a frenzy for his great love, the opera singer Konstancja Gladkowska. You can sense a kind of trinity at work here – head, heart and belly – and in outstanding performances of the work, like this one given by the young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, you become aware of the ardour as well as the desire to impress while still obeying all the courtly niceties and the social manners of the time. It is as though Chopin had memorised the entire Young Man’s Guide to Good Behaviour. An early indication that Cho had more than just crystalline clarity and tonal fastidiousness to offer came early on in the first movement, where his left hand emphasised the shifting and glittering harmonies rather than allowing the right hand to dominate through the melodic lines. The full-bloodedness of the account was splendidly matched in the weight and expressive power of the orchestral accompaniment.

The EUYO currently sports an exceptionally fine body of strings, grounded in the two outer works in no fewer than twelve double-basses (though for the concerto that number was halved), and heard to impressive effect not only in the heroic moments but also in the sea of absolute calm which launches the slow movement and in its perfect state of poise at the close. This Larghetto was greatly admired by Schumann and Liszt, not least for the way in which it spins a seemingly endless thread of melodic golden silk, acknowledging its debt to Italian opera. Here, in Cho’s wide range of dynamics and subtle touches of rubato, he created something akin to a moonlit atmosphere of beguiling charm. And as if to reiterate that his pianistic quiver contained more than simply Cupid’s darts, the heroic arrows missing earlier in the Zubel piece were fired off in a coruscating rendering of the A flat Polonaise, Op.53 by way of an encore.

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the EUYO © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Gianandrea Noseda conducts the EUYO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was a rare pleasure to hear Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony played without a break, almost as if Noseda was determined to highlight the symphonic structure and the way the motto theme knits the four movements together. The first example of the interpreter’s art comes in the Andante introduction and its transition into the Allegro con anima section. Will the gait be a trudge or a purposeful stride? Will the mood be melancholic or resolute? Noseda had no time for the depression that builds in light-starved northern climes during the winter months when skies are uniformly grey. The start was very hushed, with the clarinets sounding like distant tugs on a misty day, and then things were kept very much on the move.

Much of the conductor’s attention in matters of expressiveness was directed towards the strings, and they delivered everything that was asked of them. What was more surprising was the way in which the trumpets and lower brass, positioned on the highest of the platform tiers, were kept very much in check (they were only allowed to display their full glory in the orchestral encore, the Marche hongroise from La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz). It was perhaps a touch too civilised, with nothing remotely hysterical lurking in the odd corner. In the Valse the playing was unfailingly sensitive, but the pot only simmered. Nothing was allowed to come to the boil. There was plenty of eloquence and elegance in the phrasing, as there had been earlier in the concerto, but nothing so remotely outrageous as ecstasy.

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