The best-worked out human plans can be overturned by a single microbe, as we are reminded every day. Already the Proms schedule, so carefully crafted to adhere to quarantine and travel rules, has been disrupted. On Tuesday evening, the first of three BBC Philharmonic Proms was deprived of its Israeli conductor, Omer Meir Wellber, and the premiere of the BBC commissioned piece from Israeli composer Elle Milch-Sheriff had to be scrapped.
Fortunately, BBC Philharmonic guest conductor Ben Gernon was able to break into the breach and conduct an all-Viennese hastily redesigned program by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Nothing wrong with that, one might say, especially with young German pianist and recent BBC New Generation Artist Award winner Elisabeth Brauss on hand to play Mozart’s brilliant and festive 23rd Piano Concerto.
The first piece, Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony, presents a question. Should that famous opening drum roll come out of the silence or explode like a thunderclap? Gernon opted for the latter option, which is surely more authentic considering that a thunderclap would have been required to persuade an 18th century audience to stop chatting and paying attention.
This “authentic” start was appropriate for a performance that was light and fleeting in what everyone considers the appropriate 18th century manner, although for me it did not register the grandeur of the piece. There were lovely touches such as the cheerful clarinetist ornamentation in the trio, but overall the performance turned out to be insanely effective. Although the author of the program note called the wide, smiling melody of the major key of the variation movement as “fat,” which is a good word, this performance was definitely lo-fat. Frontman Zoë Beyers’ delightful solo playing in the same movement was the best thing about the performance.
Then came Mozart’s piano concerto, which goes from a graceful pathetic in the first movement to a profound tragedy in the second. In Brauss’s performance, the former fared much better than the latter. She wanted to take the slow motion to a secluded place to amplify its inconsolable quality with a feeling of utter loneliness. A good idea in theory, but it ignored the fact that we were in the Royal Albert Hall, not a little golden 18th century Vienna room. I doubt the people in the upper circle heard more than half of his tiny silver notes.
A few years ago, Maria João Pires proved in a solo recital that it is possible to project oneself in the back row of the Albert Hall while creating a feeling of intimacy. Brauss is certainly gifted, and she caught the shine of the final, but still has a way to go.
Then came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, and here the evening finally came alive. Everything did not happen; the Trio felt rushed and as a result lost their smile. But the opening had the alluring sense of mystery that was lacking in the opening of Haydn’s symphony, and Gernon’s very fast tempo in the scherzo and the finale brought a sense of risk and excitement that was sorely lacking elsewhere. HI
Listen to or watch this ball for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer. The Proms run until September 11, all of which air live on BBC Radio 3 and iPlayer. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms