BBC Proms 14: Jan Lisiecki, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Elim Chan, 25 July 2023

Prom x 14_Cr. Sisi Burn_ (1).jpgWho knew that there was a BBC Proms Japan? There has been reason to question the BBC’s commitment to classical music of late, but our national broadcaster seems as keen as ever to build on the Proms brand, even if “the world’s greatest classical music festival” seems to have a little less actual classical music every year. The first piece in Tuesday’s concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra was receiving its European premiere after a first performance by the same forces under the Proms banner in Japan last autumn. Noriko Koide’s Swaddling Silk and Gossamer Rain takes its inspiration from silkworms, and built its textures from almost imperceptibly whispered beginnings like a cocoon built up from invisible threads. Unconventional instrumental techniques sought to break down the barriers between music and the sounds of the natural world, until the piece once again withdrew to silence. Or would have done, had the audience managed to restrain its bronchial tendencies – this was perhaps not the venue or the occasion for such a delicate composition.

Much more at home in the Albert Hall was Beethoven’s third piano concerto, performed by Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who looked like a giant when he arrived on stage with Hong Kong-born conductor Elim Chan. He played like a giant too, making his first entry with almost Lisztian bravura and effortlessly filling the vast space of the hall. But there was precision as well as assertion, and in the second movement he accompanied the woodwind solos with warmth and restraint. The Sturm und Drang returned for the last movement, aided by emphatic (perhaps rather over-emphatic) timpani, and persisted with only minimal lightening of the mood until the final chords. The encore, Chopin’s Nocturne, op. 9 no 2 in E flat, provided a welcome moment of repose, though even here there was a Beethovenian eruption near the end.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations is another Proms stalwart, and one always wonders what a new conductor will bring to it after so many performances. The opening theme exhibited a very English restraint compared to Beethoven, and for the first half it was the quiet moments that seemed most effective, with a particularly winning viola solo in no. 6. I forget how many p’s Elgar puts in the string parts at the opening of Nimrod – here there were at least five, and the wind players were hard put to it to match the whispering strings at their first entry. After that, things settled, and the high point of the performance was probably G.R.S., in which Dan the bulldog seemed to be breasting a stormy sea rather than the tranquil waters of the Wye at Hereford. In the Romanza the clarinet quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage seemed to be coming from an immense distance, as if from a ship disappearing over the horizon. All was swagger and celebration for the conclusion, with the Albert Hall organ lending its considerable weight to the sound, and the audience responded with almost equal volume.

William Hale

Photo: BBC/Sisi Burn