Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Tuesday, September 7, 2021, Royal Albert Hall, London

Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30 p.m.

The concert opened with Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza (2020, UK premiere), Beethoven-related, opening with a jangling take on the Coriolan Overture, then scurrying along, finding room for the ‘Emperor’ Concerto along the way: lots of notes (if not much to recall afterwards) packed into five or so minutes, paid for by the BBC, Cologne Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Saint-Saëns’s ingeniously cyclical Third Symphony (1886, retrospectively in memoriam Liszt) is “avec orgue”, advised the composer, the instrument only one part of his lavish orchestration (including piccolo, contrabassoon, full brass, and piano/four hands), and with nothing to contribute during the first and third movements: otherwise, it gently purrs in the second and is more outspoken in the Finale, although in fact the movements are grouped in pairs. Whoever plays the organ in any performance – even if driving such a grand instrument as that belonging to the Royal Albert Hall (which Saint-Saëns played, as did Bruckner) – should not be considered as a concerto soloist. So, as an honorary member of the Hallé, Anna Lapwood proved ideal when creating the luminous background needed for the first movement’s slow second half and she didn’t indulge loudness and crudeness later (for that you want Pierre Cochereau on Karajan’s notorious recording).

Following an ethereal/expectant opening, Sir Mark (Hallé music director since 1999) judged tempo, rhythms and dynamics to a nicety in the Allegro moderato and dovetailed perfectly into the Poco adagio section, very spacious and rapt, beautiful string sound; religioso in effect. With the second movement’s scherzo-like beginning, clarity and articulacy were once again Elder’s aim, with something saved for the Presto section, dazzlingly scored, brought off with virtuosity … and then, via a churchy link, to the grand conclusion (Maestoso) to what might be termed Saint-Saëns’s ‘London’ Symphony (commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and premiered in the capital with the composer conducting), Elder avoiding jumping the gun in exchange for surety of direction and a jubilant arrival, although timpani needed greater impact in the final bars, unfortunately covered by the growling organ; a shame. Nevertheless the Hallé and Mark Elder can be proud of this one.

There had also been some Saint-Saëns earlier, the Frenchman’s cadenzas for Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the first movement given a no-nonsense outing from a dominant Benjamin Grosvenor, the Hallé losing out in terms of balance, at least as broadcast, and when some poetry was sought it was achieved by a rather too obvious slowing, although the piano’s cowering of the strings in the second movement came off well, and the Finale (despite continuing balance issues) had determination and sparkle (if much more of the former). Good to hear the cadenzas though (not unfamiliar through the occasional recording), especially the lengthy and imaginative one for the first movement, which Grosvenor played with panache; and his encore, Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, was a gem.