tue 25/06/2024

Grosvenor, BBCPO, Gernon, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Grosvenor, BBCPO, Gernon, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Grosvenor, BBCPO, Gernon, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

A striking debut for a new Principal Guest Conductor

Ben Gernon: confidence at 27

Two young guys called Ben graced the BBC Philharmonic platform at the Bridgewater Hall – looking almost like Ant and Dec if you let your imagination wander. Ben Gernon, 27, had just been announced as the orchestra’s new Principal Guest Conductor (while predecessor John Storgårds now rejoices in the title of Chief Guest Conductor … it almost seems a bout of alternative facts is coming on), and this was his Bridgewater Hall début.

Piano concerto soloist was Benjamin Grosvenor, a virtuoso Manchester knows well.

Stickless throughout, Gernon began with Beethoven’s Third ("Eroica") Symphony, played with what today are considered modest string forces of 41 – although three times what Beethoven had for the premiere – and with modern timpani. So it wasn’t to be a "period" performance in sound quality, but the grunt of five double basses gave real bite in the nether regions. It was, at least at first, very much in the spirit of classicism in other ways, though – brisk speeds, crisp articulation, drama in the vivid contrasts of loud and soft. Gernon managed to combine this with a degree of sophistication that is not always apparent, as the famous approach to the first movement’s reprise was all smoothness and (at the point where the horn makes his unexpected entry) he made the harmonic clash dim almost to extinction.

In my score, Beethoven apparently thought it a good idea to repeat the first movement opening section, but the BBC had set a target of 45 minutes for the duration of the entire work, so what did he know? The non-repeat actually changed the movement’s whole centre of gravity, making the coda its main musical statement – and in due course allowing the fourth movement to become the weightiest of them all. That was one stimulating aspect of Gernon’s reading – a thoroughly goal-orientated balance to a work that can alternatively be a battle of equal and opposing forces. The other was the presentation of the funeral march second movement. This was a real lament, no mere formality, the woodwind interjecting like a stabbing pain and the climax in the central episode, when it came, quite spine-tingling.

The Scherzo was fast and slick, a wild hunting ride, and tinged with growing excitement, and so the finale (with its allusion to Prometheus) came as a giant exulting in his strength. There were no doubts now: rhythmic energy and the clash of contrapuntal lines were things to revel in and served to create a magnificent rush of optimism.Benjamin GrosvenorGrosvenor (pictured above by Patrick Allen) was soloist in Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto – a great display piece for a pianist but one that hardly usually plumbs the depths (what stays with you is the ear-worm of a second-movement scherzo). But there were depths to be plumbed, and Grosvenor found them in his tender, poetic playing of the lyrical theme in the first movement. Liaison between solo and orchestra was a little slippery at one point there, but there were no such problems in the second. Grosvenor dazzled throughout, making it not just a conventional show-off but a thing of some subtlety – in which he was matched by the BBC Philharmonic under Gernon. The finale was another tour de force for the soloist, brilliantly delivered, with the Philharmonic, mostly, keeping up.

Debussy’s La Mer had the same clarity and textural control as the Beethoven symphony, though now with 62 strings (among them 12 cellos, the better to render the four-part passage where Debussy actually asks for 16 players). The Philharmonic is at its best making a rich and glorious sound with all hands on deck, leader Yuri Torchinsky played the violin solos beautifully, and the climax of "From dawn to mid-day on the sea" was very effective, if a shade over-percussive.

In the "Games of Waves" scherzo, woodwind and brass soloists showed what they were made of, too, and there was delicacy and a sense of atmosphere throughout. Gernon knows how to give his musicians the freedom to do what they do best. The finale ("Dialogue of the wind and the sea") had drama and tension from the outset, and Gernon saw the structural necessity of relaxing it, big-time, at the right moment before whipping things up again for a dynamic ending.

The Philharmonic is at its best making a rich and glorious sound with all hands on deck


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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