Proms 28/29: Stravinsky, Mozart, Mahler; Mendelssohn, Rossini, Maxwell Davies, Respighi

Karen Geoghegan; Vivica Geneaux; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda

Royal Albert Hall, 7 August 2009 3 stars3.5 stars

Gianandrea Noseda (Photo © Dan Porges)The BBC orchestras are always worked hard at the Proms and two consecutive concerts by the BBC Philharmonic under Chief Conductor Gianandrea Noseda saw them tackle long programmes covering repertoire from Mozart to Maxwell Davies by way of Mahler, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Respighi, and, to break up the alliteration, Stravinsky. Each concert ticked a box for one of this year's themes: a Stravinsky ballet kicked off the first, a Mendelssohn symphony the second.

The Stravinsky was the 1944 Broadway commission, Scènes de ballet, one of several wartime works produced, as Stephen Walsh wryly observes in his programme note, 'for American impresarios who wanted to tap Stravinsky's fame but preferably without the disadvantages of his music.' Although some way from the halcyon days of the Ballets russes, it is still a finely crafted piece of neo-classicism that came across well in Noseda's hands, the BBC Philharmonic alive to both its humour and lyricism.

Lyricism and humour were brought to the next work, too, as Karen Geoghegan took to the stage for Mozart's delightful early Bassoon Concerto, K.191. The Scottish bassoonist shot to prominence as runner-up in the BBC's Classical Star and has since landed a contract with Chandos, sparking a mini-revolution in appreciation of the instrument. Concerned to project in the large hall, she gave us too few moments of hush – she failed to match the muted elegance of the BBC Phil's strings in the Andante – but was a confident, ebullient soloist, doing much to show both her instrument and Mozart's work to best advantage.

The substantial second half was filled with Mahler's massive Sixth Symphony. Noseda is not known for his Mahler and his interpretation had very much the feeling of a work in progress. He whipped up some thrilling drama in places – with the BBC orchestra on magnificent form – but was strangely ill at ease in the more pensive, fragmented writing. The opening March was visceral, but a little brutal and unrelenting, the famous 'Alma' theme given too little space to breathe. There was a similar story in the scherzo, here placed second, with Noseda less sure of how to manage the contrasting central sections than the pounding violence surrounding it. He relaxed rather more in the Andante moderato, producing a luminous central climax, but floundered in the vast finale. A lot of care had been taken with surface details – although at times I could have done without the overzealous timpani and studiedly uncouth clarinet – but as the work progressed, Noseda's failure to create a sense of organic inevitability became more serious.   

The Italian-themed second concert kicked off with a disappointing performance of Mendelssohn's 'Italian' symphony: ironically, in Noseda's hands there was little Mediterranean lightness, giving it a rather laboured Germanic feel. Despite fast tempi – too fast at times for the strings to keep up with the quicksilver counterpoint – there wasn't the airy ease that's essential for the work, poor balance often masking Mendelssohn's skill as orchestrator. It was a shame in a season featuring all the composer's symphonies, that his best-known should came across as little more than a warm-up for the rest of the concert. The star turn before the interval came from Vivica Geneaux in virtuoso accounts of two Rossini arias: showstoppers from La donna del lago and La cenerentola. With lavish and intricate ornamentation – perhaps too much so for some tastes – she negotiated the coloratura with breathtaking ease, a slightly shrill top of the voice amply compensated by fearlessly robust bottom notes.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's Roma amor gave the orchestra a chance to shine at the start of the second half. A substantial forty-minute work in three movements from 1998, it is displays the mature composer's enormous skill in evoking a typically imaginative programme. However, Davies's self-confessed love-hate relationship with the city brings mixed results, placing a very modern awareness of the city's brutal past – not least the shadow of twentieth-century Fascism – against a rather indulgent Romanticism that seems partly informed by the centuries-old tradition of the Grand Tour. As such the third movement veers from an abrasively dissonant evocation of folk music asphyxiated by traffic, via celestial fanfares to what Davies 'imagine[s] that the 'real' St. Michael and the Angels would sing, quietly keeping watch, high above the teeming city.' The BBC Philharmonic gave their all, however, responding to a score that pits moments of great beauty against masterfully evoked, chaotic city-scapes.

A grand finale came in the form of a rousing performance of Respighi's Pines of Rome, the final bars, augmented by additional brass and the hall's organ at full tilt, providing a rare sonic thrill. However, Respighi's work is full of delicate, subtle touches too, and the trumpet solo from on-high was particularly evocative, as was his use of taped lark-song, realised here with care.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo: Gianandrea Noseda © Dan Porgesline

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