Symphony Hall Birmingham, B:Classical 2022/23: 7.30pm, 8 November 2022 – Belgian National Orchestra 5***** Paul Gray

This is a first visit to Birmingham from Belgium’s leading orchestra and its new Principal Guest Conductor, Roberto González-Monjas. And what a stunning concert it proved.

The Belgian National Orchestra like to introduce audiences to works not familiar. This is the case in the choice of first piece the Preludio, corale e fuga by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).

Respighi wrote this as a relatively young man, a student under the tutelage of that master of orchestration Rimsky-Korsakov. Clearly the tutelage paid off, and at the work’s premiere – as part of Respighi’s final exams – he was regarded thus: “Respighi is not a pupil, Respighi is a master!”

Indeed, this is a super little work. When the great chorale melody is heard in full orchestra toward the end, there is some particularly sumptuous playing by the strings, and – with most of the great doors to the cavernous acoustic chambers of Symphony Hall wide open – the sound of this orchestra was glorious and all-consuming: one’s whole body felt totally connected to the fabric of both building and orchestra. Of course, Maestro Monjas repeats this marvellous effect later in the immense splendour that is the end of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony: the floors of the Hall really did shake!

To follow came Mozart’s once-lost C Major Piano Concerto, written & performed in 1786/87. It took Mozart just three days to write, was probably only performed once in the composer’s lifetime and then lost for over 100 years until a performance in 1934.

Pianist Paul Lewis is always a delight to hear. This is an artist who gets deep inside Mozart’s music, finding inner counterpoints, harmonies and melodies. The C Major concerto is an exquisitely joyful, frequently cheeky work, packed full of glorious melodies – melodies reminiscent of those sung by Mozart’s comic characters in his Opera Buffa. Indeed, the 1780s were a decade where Mozart was churning out the best of his operas, and, as many Mozart scholars mention “it is as though the piano soloist has been placed on the operatic stage”.

Concluding the concert: Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony (1886). Of this work the composer said “what I have here accomplished I will never achieve again.” Indeed, the composer worked night-and-day on the piece, and it is rightly considered to be one of his greatest works, if not one of the greatest symphonies of the late-romantic era.

This is because it has such a tightly integrated structure, with every musical idea related one to the next. There are wonderful, rich melodic, harmonic and textural resources, with an exciting use of rhythm, fugue, chorale, unifying motifs, and captivating orchestration.

This was a truly outstanding performance of the Saint-Saëns, and very worthy of the standing ovation it received.

Belgian National Orchestra

Roberto González-Monjas conductor

Paul Lewis piano

Respighi Preludio, corale e fuga

Mozart Piano Concerto 25

Saint-Saëns Symphony No 3 ‘Organ’

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