A heavenly season-opener from London Philharmonic, plus the best of September’s classical concerts

London Philharmonic conductor Edward Gardner in 2021
London Philharmonic conductor Edward Gardner in 2021 - Mark Allan

London Philharmonic Orchestra/Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

Another season-opener from a major London orchestra, another sold-out Festival Hall. Despite all the talk during the pandemic that “everything must change” in classical music, some things just don’t change. A huge choral-and-orchestral blockbuster is simply a wonderful way to launch a new season.

Like Verdi’s Requiem, heard in the same hall two days ago from the Philharmonia, Mahler’s 2nd symphony is about the modern crisis of faith. Verdi’s piece ends with a hush which seems to say: doubt can’t be overcome. Whereas Mahler’s symphony fights its way from despair to faith in the afterlife through sheer willpower (it’s not called “The Resurrection” for nothing). “Oh believe!” sings the mezzo-soprano, as if believing hard enough will make it true.

Last night the mezzo-soprano was Beth Taylor, and rarely if ever have I felt the power of that call so strongly. She sang with a perfectly natural fullness of tone that was tender and magnificent at once, though she had already melted us in the preceding hushed prayer to the “little angel” to allow us into heaven. Soon she was joined by soprano Sally Matthews, whose fervent prayer emerged artfully from the massed sound of the choir. This was moving too, but her smaller, softer-edged voice wasn’t well matched with Taylor in the duet passages.

So much depends on how this final affirmation is led up over the preceding 70-minute journey. Conductor Edward Gardner opted for urgency in the opening funeral march rather than the heavy tread some conductors give us, which gave him space to relax the tempo later, when we got a brief foretaste of heaven. The second movement was an interlude of cushioned, nostalgic escapism, with the violins sliding between notes with proper Viennese-style charm.

After that the constantly hurrying Scherzo, meant to represent the futile onrush of life, felt a mite too smooth and perfect. The brass needed to snarl more, the clarinets’ squeal should have been sharper. Then, after Beth Taylor’s appeal to the “little angel” came the final struggle between light and dark, becoming more agitated before reaching outright panic. All this was controlled magnificently by Gardner, so that when the silence fell and the hushed voices of London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Choruses welcomed the trembling, timorous soul into the afterlife, we were ready for it.

So a fine performance which left me battered and dazzled, if not convinced. This opening week of the season has been a reminder of what treasures we possess in our orchestras. We must remember to treasure them in return. IH

Víkingur Ólafsson/Royal Festival Hall ★★★☆☆

When an entire Festival Hall audience rises to its feet, you know you’re in the presence of an artist with a mystique that seems to defy rational criticism. Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who was greeted with that standing ovation last night after a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, is one such artist. He has an air of “depth”, which is sedulously encouraged by his record company. On the cover of a recent album we see him finger-painting coloured lines on glass, as if even his doodles have a huge significance.

Last night’s concert helped to explain his appeal. Expectations were high, as Bach’s piece is both huge and hugely taxing. In the Himalayas of challenging piano works, it ranks among the highest. Ólafsson however was supremely unfazed. He strode on with a smiling, brisk “I’m in charge here” air, which combined with his bespectacled groomed neatness and hands-together pose made him seem like a celebrity professor in front of 2,700 eager students. He then unfolded the tranquil Aria on which Bach based his 30 variations with absolute spotless perfection. Bach’s little trills and curlicues, normally an opportunity for a pianist to bend the music a little, emerged under Ólafsson’s fingers with measured exactitude, as if Bach had actually written them out with arithmetical precision.

That plus the flawless balancing of the voices set the tone of the evening, which was one of clean but somewhat anonymous perfection. In the many fast variations, this was allied to a determination to be as startlingly brilliant and fast as possible. There was an almost inhuman quality about these movements reminiscent of the most famous recording of this piece, made in 1955 by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould—a pianist with whom Ólafsson is often compared.

Víkingur Ólafsson at the Royal Festival Hall
Víkingur Ólafsson at the Royal Festival Hall - Pete Woodhead

It must be said there were also many wonderful, entrancing passages, especially in the medium-paced “canons”, a kind of music where a melody is chased by its shadow. Ólafsson made the dancing bass-line as interesting as the two melodies above, so your ear was pulled first this way and then that, like watching three equally fine dancers. His way of moulding the tension of a line meant he could play the tragic minor-key canon with daring slowness, with the last three notes stretched out agonisingly.

There were other things to warm to, such as Ólafsson’s way of running several variations together as a way of counteracting the “stop-go” feeling of 30 short pieces. But in the final fast group of variations, with each variation more fast and loud than the previous one, the music-making seemed bullying and insistent.

Ólafsson is a remarkable talent, but there’s something chilling about his perfection which inspires admiration more than love.

Víkingur Ólafsson’s new recording of the Goldberg Variations is released on DG on October 6

Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

The Philharmonia’s choice of Verdi’s blazing, terrifying Requiem to launch its season seems both obvious and inspired. It guarantees a full house, and simultaneously thrills the audience to the marrow and wrings their hearts. Birmingham’s orchestra made the same choice only last week.

At another level, it’s risky. So many things can go wrong, from the chorus’s hushed opening, which has to be perfectly timed and focused, to the soprano’s pianissimo top notes at the end. In between, the soloists’ music is especially taxing, as Verdi constantly requires them to be perfectly sustained at the top of their range. His pitiless demands on the singers seem to mirror the Almighty’s own sternness.

The Philharmonia last night did the work proud. True, it wasn’t without its perilous moments. French tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac had a lovely soft top range, just right for those pleas for God’s mercy, and he could summon a powerful sound too, but the transition between them felt uncertain. And German soprano Susanne Bernhard who stepped in to replace an indisposed singer, was clearly an intelligent and expressive artist but she seemed to be having vocal problems, and those final pianissimo top notes felt like a triumph of sheer will-power. By contrast, Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was on rock-steady form, able to flare instantly from a tiny thread of sound to full magnificence. The best singer on stage was the Turkish bass Tareq Nazmi, also a late stand-in. His performance of the Confutatis seemed both perfect and perfectly natural. No artifice was required.

On the podium was the Philharmonia’s principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. He wasn’t always alert to the danger of overwhelming the singers, but his pacing of the huge work, the way he left room for expressive pull-backs while maintaining the flow, was unerring. The orchestra was on fine form (the pleading bassoon of Robin O’Neill is still in my ear) but even more impressive was the Philharmonia Chorus. Sometimes a British performance of this piece leaves me longing for an Italian chorus, but not here. They were simply superb, whether in the cries of terror of the Dies Irae, or the consoling Agnus Dei.

So not a perfect performance, but a wonderful one, because when everyone is clearly straining every nerve to reach the heights the few blemishes actually become expressive. They seem a moving symbol of human frailty in the face of the Almighty’s inescapable judgement. IH

No further performances

The Philharmonia Orchestra performing at the Royal Festival Hall
The Philharmonia Orchestra performing at the Royal Festival Hall - Marc Gascoigne

Royal Northern Sinfonia, Glasshouse ★★★☆☆

When an orchestra launches its new season everyone’s eye is on the all-important figure of the musical director on the podium. Especially when, as in the case of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, that music director has arrived only recently and has just seized the attention of a big international public. It was Dinis Sousa who stepped in at very short notice at the Proms for the disgraced Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to lead a performance of Berlioz’s Trojans.

That concert earlier this month was a triumph, partly because it played to Sousa’s strengths in holding hundreds of performers together with total decisiveness, and for infusing a performance with adrenal excitement and epic spaciousness. But here in front of his own orchestra, with music that was less epic and more intimate, the results were more mixed.

The programme was certainly eye-catching, with a popular blockbuster, Beethoven’s grandest piano concerto the Emperor, alongside a brand-new RNS-commissioned piece, the enigmatically entitled Swim by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. And for good measure we had Schumann’s beautifully sunny Rhenish symphony.

All this took place in the “new” Glasshouse International Centre for Music, which is actually the renamed Sage Gateshead. The venue had to relinquish its familiar name when the Newcastle-based software company Sage decided to build a swanky new building on an adjoining site. The “new” Glasshouse is seizing the moment for some eye-catching initiatives, such as giving free entry to events for every child in Northumbria and Cumbria up to the age of 10. London venues take note.

The concert itself got off to the best possible start, with the grand dame of Russian pianists Elisabeth Leonskaja giving a performance of Beethoven’s concerto that was as generous and many-sided as the music itself. Many pianists simply make those opening flourishes as grand as possible, but Leonskaja found space for light and shade, and even a moment of reflectiveness. Leonskaja gave the feeling of looking at the piece eye-to-eye, taking extra time at transitional moments, and throwing off passages with an almost careless swagger. To use the contemporary jargon, she “owned” the piece. Sousa and the orchestra were alert and joyous in support.

As for Miller’s Swim, it was a mournful, at times almost inaudible evocation of an underwater world, achieved by taking a solemn brass hymn from Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony (which we were about to hear) and stretching it out to inordinate length, while blurring the part-writing. For me the sadness of the music’s sounds was amplified by the sad thoughts it prompted about the state of contemporary music. Have we reached such a state of creative impotence that this desultory noodling with a long-dead composer is now thought to be interesting?

It would be nice to report that the closing performance of Schumann’s symphony totally restored my spirits – but Dinis Sousa flayed the first movement so relentlessly it lost most of its charm. Fortunately he relaxed in the later movements, though it was still only a partially successful ending to an evening that had started so wonderfully. IH

See this concert on the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Youtube channel

Dinis Sousa conducting the opening night concert at the Glasshouse International Centre for Music, Gateshead
Dinis Sousa conducting the opening night concert at the Glasshouse International Centre for Music, Gateshead

London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★★☆

As this concert reminded us, intensity of feeling is in vogue nowadays. It hardly matters what the feeling is, as long as it’s turned up to the max.

It’s an aesthetic that suits Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan to a t. She’s become famous for portraying crazed police chiefs in modern opera, crazed heroines in Baroque opera, and for that particular kind of modern music where intensity is expressed through wild leaps at a stratospheric altitude, performed with unnerving pinpoint accuracy.

And we got this in last night’s concert, in which Hannigan shone both in her old role as high soprano, and her new one as conductor. On she strode to lead a performance of Ramifications, an exercise in glistening deliquescence by the Hungarian modernist György Ligeti. “Like meat gone slightly off” is how he described the sound of this piece for two groups of stringed instruments, one tuned slightly differently to the other, but in this performance it had a beautiful, almost tender purity.

With Wo bist du Licht! (Where are you, Light!) by the Canadian composer Claude Vivier we were back in Hannigan’s preferred territory of sudden shocks and glacial mystery, delivered here by the strings and percussionist of the LSO. Mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron sung the desperately sad text, based on a German romantic poem about a blind singer, with truly thrilling intensity.

Barbara Hannigan, LSO, Barbican
A haunted quality: Barbara Hannigan conducts - Mark Allan

Haydn’s symphony no. 26 might seem the odd one out in this company, but as conducted by Hannigan it seemed no less strange and haunted than the modern pieces around it—a bit too much so, frankly. Then, in a final tour de force, Hannigan performed a solo lament by the Italian Marxist/modernist Luigi Nono inspired by Algeria’s struggle for independence. A rapt beauty emerged, held at the end by Hannigan on one almost-inaudible note, while she turned slowly to the orchestra to launch a fine performance of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration”—the final evocation of death in this death-haunted performance.

It was a remarkable evening, but a strange and unsettling one. LSO audiences will have more chances to explore Hannigan’s emotional world this season, as she will be a frequent guest conductor. It’s a chance not to be missed—just make sure you have a stiff drink first. IH

Hear this concert repeated at the Barbican on September 17. See it on Marquee TV from October 12

Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, G Live Guildford ★★★★☆

By what miracle did a superb Hungarian orchestra appear last night in a regional concert hall, with a top-rank solo pianist? As an economic proposition the concert was very risky, as the venue was modestly sized and in any case the orchestra does not have the lustrous name that can bring in huge crowds.

The answer is that unlike the UK, Hungary is actually proud of its classical music culture, and has a government which though odious in many ways is at least willing to subsidise a tour such as this. That’s something the classical-music lovers of Guildford must be grateful for, as they were treated to something special. It was a generous- sized band, with that unmistakably rich sound that central European orchestras have. It created an extraordinary power which was so much more than simple volume. There was a special unanimity of attack and phrasing, a way of sensitively rounding off a phrase, which was the opposite of regimented. Your eye and ear were constantly drawn to this or that energised violinist or flautist.

On the podium was the orchestra’s music director Andras Keller. He’s a violinist by training, and his conducting technique is not exactly elegant to behold. But he has a wonderful ability to vary a speed so subtly that it seems rock-steady, until you become aware that the tempo has relaxed or tightened imperceptibly.

That was a boon in the evening’s biggest piece, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. The first movement began in a way that was spacious yet urgent, and by the time we reached the hectic middle section it felt as if we were in the middle of an insurrection. The funeral march seemed a throwback to the slow, dignified pace orchestras used to adopt, but became lighter and brisker in the major-key section, in a way more like the so-called “period orchestras” of today. Keller is clearly someone who subscribes to no fashions.

Mozart’s tragic 40th symphony was naturally more classical and “Grecian” but you could still feel the dramatic flexibility of tempo under the surface. In Bartok’s 3rd piano concerto, we heard another side to this orchestra; a proper Hungarian-folk fire and dash in the finale, and a relish in the mysterious nocturnal rustlings and hootings of the middle movement. The soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave this swan-song of the ailing composer a smiling, genial quality. It missed the tragic, haunted quality of András Schiff’s performance at the Proms some weeks back, but was  engaging in its own way. IH

Concerto Budapest SO’s UK tour continues to London, Cheltenham and Edinburgh concertobudapest.hu

Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Guildford
An unmistakably rich sound: Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra - Laszlo Mudra

Ensemble Modern, Wigmore Hall ★★★☆☆

Like any artistic institution with the word “modern” in its title, the superb chamber group Ensemble Modern from Frankfurt has to decide what the word actually means. Is it literally cutting-edge music, with the ink still wet on the page? Or is it the “classic” but still radical-sounding works of the modern age – to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase, the “news that stays news”?

At this concert conducted by the one-time wunderkind but now white-haired and benign George Benjamin, the Ensemble chose the second option. These days, that’s decidedly unfashionable. Their offering of mostly modernist masterpieces from the first two decades of the 20th century was just the kind of programme our own London Sinfonietta used to play in the 1970s and 80s, but now tends to avoid.

However, the moment Octandre by Edgard Varèse burst into life, one realised with a shock that this music is indeed eternally young. It was the sound of the Machine Age, expressed through ear-splitting dissonances for high brass and piccolo, tinged with a yearning for a futurist utopia in oboist Christian Hommel’s plaintive, angular melodies.

At the opposite pole of fluttering, sensuous allure were Ravel’s setting of three poems by the most obscure of French poets, Stéphane Mallarmé. Soprano Anna Prohaska’s rich vocal colours and savouring of Mallarmé’s words made the mysteriousness of the poems stand out in sharp relief, as if we were listening to an oracle. Benjamin conducted both these with telling flexibility, and brought out a vein of humour in his witty, balletic new arrangements of a canon and fugue from Bach’s Art of Fugue. The one recent piece in the programme, Mirage, Mémoire, Mystère by Jordanian composer Saed Haddad held modernist French allusiveness and a melancholy feeling derived from faintly Arab-sounding modes in a very delicate balance.

All very pleasurable: so why only three stars? Because the biggest piece of the evening, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1, was such a disappointment. The piece positively writhes with piled-up complication, all at maximum expressive heat, and it can easily sound chaotic and over-wrought if the conductor doesn’t relax the tension at times. Unfortunately, Benjamin went the other way, flailing the piece into a non-stop expressionist frenzy. As a result, the violins and horns sounded thin and pinched, and the piece overall barely made sense. It was a reminder that Schoenberg needs light and shade in performance, just as much as Mozart. IH

No further performances

Proms 2023, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Semyon Bychkov, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has now played an astonishing 11 different programmes at the Proms. It’s the kind of workload that would make European orchestras down tools in protest. But if the players are feeling exhausted it certainly didn’t show at Monday night’s wonderful performance of Bruckner’s 90-minute Eighth Symphony.

Listening to a piece that vast is like walking around an immense landscape. The topography changes only slowly, and when you encounter the same landmark from a new angle it feels different. So even more than usual, one has to reserve judgement and let things unfold for a while.

One thing, though, was clear at the outset. Under the baton of conductor Semyon Bychkov, the orchestra actually sounded different – the sound less sharp and more cushioned in attack, and the flow of ideas broader, as if the orchestra were breathing more deeply.

Thanks to that fundamental change Bychkov was able to take riskily broad speeds, because the motive power that sustained the energy was not the usual pulse or beat, but breath. In the first movement he even pulled the already slow tempo back a little, in the big violin melody that lightens the atmosphere after the doom-laden opening.

The effect was to intensify the music’s glow. This was especially true in the second movement, which as the programme note said can sound like an “elemental engine”. Some might have missed the element of galumphing savagery in the music, but I warmed to the way the music seemed benign and radiant, even when the kettle-drums were thundering and the brass whooping.

The slow, gentle soughing third movement, drenched in the deep sound of Wagner tubas, has a warning mark from the composer: “Don’t drag”. Bychkov’s tempo seemed stately enough to be in danger of doing exactly that, but again that quality of deep breathing meant one was never aware of slowness. Bruckner also marked the music “feierlich”, a word normally translated as “solemn”, though there’s the extra implication of “celebratory” – as in “solemnisation of marriage”.

That double implication is something Bychkov clearly understands well, because it shone out in this performance. We could feel the vein of sadness in the music, but at bottom it was life-affirming. That deep, mysterious quality recurred in the final movement, an immense battle which is momentarily threatened by the darkness of the first movement. The final triumph can seem hard-won, but here it felt somehow inevitable. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until September 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms

Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2023 Proms
Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2023 Proms - BBC/Chris Christoldoulou

Proms 2023, The Trojans, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Sunday night’s Prom should have been a triumph for John Eliot Gardiner, one of Britain’s great if notoriously tyrannical conductors. It was he who founded the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the two ensembles that were the bedrock of the performance of Berlioz’s huge opera The Trojans. It was he who moulded Berlioz’s retelling of the defeat of Troy and Aeneas’s flight to Carthage and his doomed love for Queen Dido into something grand yet intimate, ready for the European tour of which this Proms performance was the grand finale.

It was not to be. Almost two weeks ago, Gardiner lost his temper after a performance in France and allegedly punched and slapped the bass William Thomas. Gardiner immediately pulled out of the tour, and issued an apology in a tone of humble contrition no one ever expected to hear from him. Three days before the Proms performance, Thomas also pulled out.

To lose a conductor and a soloist can throw a tour off the rails, and it’s a tribute to Dinis Sousa, Gardiner’s tremendously energised and decisive associate conductor that Sunday’s performance was such a triumph. In the opera’s first part, everything centres around Cassandra, whose warnings about the immense wooden horse left by the departing Greeks are ignored.

To be at a pitch of desperate doom-laden foreboding for an hour and half is a superhuman challenge for a singer, but Alice Coote rose to it magnificently. She put everyone in the shade, even the tenor Michael Spyres as Aeneas, who had the right ringing tone and confident presence but wasn’t so splendid in the top of his range. Paula Murrihy was moving as Queen Dido whom Aeneas eventually abandons, but it was the smaller roles that really impressed: Laurence Kilsby sung Hylas the sailor’s song exquisitely, and the William Thomas’s substitute Alex Rosen made a vivid impression as Dido’s minister Narbal.

The real heroes of the performance, apart from Coote, were the chorus and orchestra. Whether in a mood of celebration, swirling up and around the stage in choreographed movement, or damning the departing Aeneas, the chorus was surpassingly vivid. And the orchestra, augmented with the exotic-sounding brass and percussion instruments Berlioz would have known, brought an edge of strangeness and romantic mystery to the evening. Berlioz’s determinedly epic opera can seem pompous in some performances, but here it was sublime. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until September 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms

Dinis Sousa conducts in The Trojans at the Proms
Dinis Sousa conducts in The Trojans at the Proms - Andy Paradise

Proms 2023, Chineke!, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★☆

Since its foundation eight years ago Chineke! – Europe’s first majority Black and ethnically diverse orchestra – has grown from brave fledging to full-grown member of the classical scene. It’s achieved this by shrewdly riding two horses. It has a stake in the “high ground” of classical music (last season it played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Proms) but also champions black-majority composers, sometimes with music of defiance and protest, sometimes in a mood of sheer celebration.

The celebratory mood of last night’s Prom was evident right from the off with Seven O’Clock Shout. This engaging piece by African-American composer Valerie Coleman evoked those moments in the pandemic when she and her friends would bang pots and pans on their apartment balcony. It started in a delicate mood of Copland-esque Americana before turning into a carnival of clanging, halloo-ing and dancing sounds from the orchestra, and ending with a radiant hymn.

By contrast Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Four Novelletten of 1902 were models of Edwardian salon-music decorum, composed with Coleridge-Taylor’s customary perfect craftsmanship, and played with lovely delicacy by the strings of Chineke! under guest conductor Anthony Parnther. As so often happens when one of these little-known pieces of Coleridge-Taylor is revived, the music’s sheer melodic charm was so irresistible you couldn’t help wondering why this music ever disappeared.

The tone of delicate charm continued with Haydn’s famous trumpet concerto, played with lovely soft-toned intimacy by Nigerian-Scottish trumpeter Aaron Azunda Akugbo. Just occasionally an amusing improvised transition ruffled the music’s serene classical surface, and hinted at another, more unruly side to this gifted young musician.

In the second half the tone darkened momentarily with the final movement from the 1953 Sinfonietta by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (who was named after the Coleridge-Taylor whose music we’d just heard). Its hectic driving energy appeared to ease for a more lyrical central section but was still detectable in the background, an effect Parnther and the orchestra made sure we noticed.

Finally came Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, a piece whose prevailing sunny tone is deepened by a mysterious introduction and sudden explosions of minor-key sternness. Rather than emphasise these, Parnther and the orchestra gave the piece a fleet, classical lightness and directness, marred just occasionally with rough edges. The best moments were the tender, twilit solos of clarinettist Anton Clarke-Butler and bassoonist Joshua Elmore, which brought out the vein of romanticism under the music’s robustly classical surface. IH

Chineke! Orchestra performing at the Royal Albert Hall with Aaron Azunda Akugbo on trumpet
Chineke! Orchestra performing at the Royal Albert Hall with Aaron Azunda Akugbo on trumpet - Mark Allan

Proms 2023, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

This Proms season has been the most lavish ever in some ways, with concerts held in far-flung parts of the UK and the range of music stretching to embrace Northern Soul and Bollywood.

Yet one complaint murmured in the Albert Hall foyers is that the variety of international orchestras isn’t as stellar as it once was – no Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic to raise the Proms to the level of Lucerne or Salzburg. However, having listened to the two most recent visiting orchestras, I can’t say I missed them. The Zurich Tonhalle was stunning in its unashamedly populist programme on Wednesday, and last night the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra offered another reminder of what separates a great orchestra from a good one.

This was evident straight from the off in a piece where beauty of tone and finesse are not normally top of the listener’s expectations: the Little Threepenny Music, the suite Kurt Weill drew from his smash-hit 1928 music-theatre work The Threepenny Opera. I must admit my first response was: shouldn’t the trombone-playing Mack the Knife sound more suggestive and sinister?  Where was the uproariousness and the sleaze? But, as the suite unfolded, the perfectly calibrated balance and the delicate reticence of the players under their chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski were a revelation. The radiance of the sound allowed the music’s craftsmanship to shine out, and revealed the nobility in a work not normally prized for that quality.

In the next piece, Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto, the orchestra (now hugely enlarged) seemed to let its collective hair down. The winds and brass capered madly in the first movement, their rhythms crunching against the slightly different rhythms scampering through the fingers of soloist Kirill Gerstein. The impression of a machine skittering almost out of control was hugely enjoyable, as were the gleeful references to the barnstorming pianistic virtuosity of the Romantic age. The solemn tread of the slow movement, sounding like a funeral ritual of some alien race, laid a brief icy spell on the Albert Hall, quickly dispelled by the helter-skelter of the finale. Although Adès’s piece is intimidatingly brilliant, the relaxed yet super-alert performance made it seem almost friendly.

Radiant, gleeful, relaxed: conductor Vladimir Jurowski
Radiant, gleeful, relaxed: conductor Vladimir Jurowski - Andy Paradise

At the opposite pole to Adès’s allusiveness was the heart-on-sleeve sincerity of the final piece, Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony – but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were moments when romantic fullness suddenly dropped away to leave a lonely clarinet hanging, and the finale felt like a restless search for something it could call home – surely a reflection of the Russian composer’s own unhappy exile in the US. All these surprising switchbacks and transitions were controlled by Jurowski with his customary elegance, and in a way which made them seem utterly convincing. IH

Listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until September 9. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms

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