BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
January 28 2022
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Spirited music-making – but not without problems for the reviewer
One of the most precious things about live concerts – and why recordings will never make them redundant – is that they can take your expectations and turn them on their head. It’s the unpredictable that always quickens the pulse and makes the mouth water.
For some in the audience on Friday night the big surprise will have been music by the Austrian composer Franz Schmidt, who lived from the 1870s to the eve of World War Two. If anyone had been nervous about an unknown twentieth century composer, fears would have evaporated as soon as the BBC Phil started playing the opening of his opera Notre Dame. If you have a musical sweet tooth, if you like late-Romantic lushness and sweeping tunes, then this would have been for you. Three pieces were extracted from the opera (Introduction, Carnival Music and Intermezzo) which formed a nostalgic journey back into yesteryear, to the sort of music some may associate with old Technicolor Errol Flynn films. The Intermezzo in particular will have won new friends for this little-known composer (in the UK at least) and I wouldn’t be surprised if its hit rate on Spotify increased this weekend.
There was a less pleasant surprise in this concert, however, at least for me. The Royal Concert Hall may have wonderful acoustics but they are delicately balanced and horrible dead zones can open up if they are disturbed. On Friday the decision was made to remove the front five rows of seats in the Stalls and extend the stage outwards. This meant that my mid-Stalls seat became more of a front-Stalls seat. This was not good news for Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Sunwook Kim’s performance clearly blew the audience away (judging from the final ovation) but none of the (no doubt) subtlety and finesse of his playing managed to penetrate the acoustical Black Hole in which I was sitting: all those top frequencies that give sparkle and bloom to piano sound had disappeared and the instrument lost its cutting edge. What I could tell, however, was that this was a highly individual performance (the opening chords taken unusually slowly) as well as a highly dramatic one – with lots of leonine mane-shaking, enraptured gazing heavenwards and much piano-stool ballet. As I say, those not in the Black Hole clearly enjoyed it hugely.
Dvorak’s 8th Symphony followed the interval. Conductor Ben Gernon had the measure of a work which overflows with glorious melodies. The opening’s soulful melody was dark-hued and pulled at the heartstrings; the slow movement had great emotional range; the scherzo and finale were dramatic and openhearted. The BBC Phil was clearly on good form – but I shall be keen to hear when it’s broadcast what the concert sounded like from another seat in the house.
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Ben Gernon, conductor
Sunwook Kim, piano