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Prom 34 (Susan Elkin reviews)

Unexpectedly, the high spot in this initially populist concert was the Lutoslawski concerto for orchestra (1954) with which it ended. Full of Polish folk and folksy melodies with spikily original orchestration, it came off magnificently in the hands of the always exciting West-Eastern Divan orchestra under co-founder Daniel Barenboim who made the piece sound fresh and dynamic. That striking passage which opens the third movement with pianissimo pizzicato from bases soon ethereally joined by piano and then cor anglais was a special moment.

There is, of course, always a buzz when this orchestra appears at the Proms or anywhere else because everyone present (and the hall was packed tight) understands, and by implication approves of, what it stands for: a bridge, now twenty years old, across the divide in the Middle East. It is warmly uplifting to see and hear these talented musicians from Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Iran and Spain working together.

The first half of the evening gave us Schubert’s Unfinished – an unusual choice of opener but it made this concert rather good value for money. Barenboim opted for a measured tempo in the first movement which exploited every nuance of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Positioning second violins to his right, he coaxed and stroked the music into existence rather than indulging in a lot of stick waving.

There was plenty of Schubertian colour and lyricism in both movements with every line and part made loving clear, not least because the orchestra was quite sharply tiered which made for a good sound balance. The timp work at the end was a delight.

And so to the star turn which preceded the interval: Martha Argerich playing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. World famous and respected virtuoso that she is, Argerich carries charisma in bucketsful and was clearly a crowd pleaser. Her life-long friendship and rapport with Barenboim (they were both born in Buenos Aires) was evident both visually and aurally. Nonetheless I’m not convinced that this in-your-face, warhorse of a concerto allowed her to play with the subtlety of which we all know she is pre-eminently capable. Given too that she is now 78 and slightly shaky on her feet, I’ll pretend I didn’t notice the rather large number of wrong notes. Instead let’s focus on the engaging sight of her rhythmically rocking from side to side with pleasure at the opening 3|4 middle movement and the light insouciance with which she delivered the 6|8 section.

First published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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