I was surprised to find myself second in the queue for Prom 42 on Wednesday for the first of a pair of concerts featuring Saint-Saëns among others. In fact, although I had expected to recognise some of the pieces without knowing them by name, it was a concert, themed around French evocations of the near and far east, of music almost all new to me. Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth began with Saint-Saëns’ overture from La princesse jaune: an opera a few years earlier than The Mikado but sharing the fascination of the time for all things Japanese, though in this case the opera is more about the fascination itself, rather than being a story of Japan. Next, ballet music from Delibes’ Lakmé, which I had expected to recognise at some point, but in fact it seems the suite doesn’t touch upon any of the really well-known themes.
Les Siècles is a period-instrument orchestra, and for this concert they were playing on late nineteenth-century instruments. It was, therefore, appropriate that the piano wheeled on to the stage was not the usual Royal Albert Hall Steinway, but instead a late nineteenth-century Bechstein. Cédric Tiberghien was the soloist for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian), another work I’d expected to be more familiar than it turned out. This seemed a bit of an oddity, with multiple styles; the name refers to the sections in the slow movement, but the last movement looks forward to ragtime. I hesitate to use the word “timeless”, but I mean it rather literally, because overall the piece pulls in so many different directions it seems ancient and modern all at once. There was no doubting Tiberghien’s skill, though; and he rounded off the first half with an encore of Debussy’s prelude La Puerta del Vino.
Unusually, the piano remained on stage, as the second half began with another piano-orchestral piece, Franck’s Les Djinns, which had a more conventional sound although a less conventional form. The remainder of the concert was orchestral only: more theatre music with excerpts from Lalo’s Namouna, before finishing with the one piece I actually did recognise: Saint-Saëns’ Bacchanal from Samson and Delilah. If you’re the castanets player in the orchestra, this is your big chance. Of course it went down a storm. Conductor François-Xavier Roth insisted on a short speech, about the exploration of other cultures and the folly of building walls, and the concert concluded with one of the more unusual encores I have seen: an arrangement of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, or so the BBC Proms Twitter feed tells me.
I antipated a longer queue on Thursday, and I was right, although I still found myself in the second row for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert with Charles Dutoit. This time the theme was French and Spanish, beginning with Falla’s El amor brujo. Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac certainly gave an earthy cantaora voice to the songs; among the orchestral numbers was the well-known Ritual Fire Dance. Joshua Bell was the violinist for Lalo’s Symphony espagnole, a concerto in all but name; another new piece for me, and well-received in the hall. Unusually, orchestra and soloist joined forces for an encore at the end of the first half: the Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet. It obviously destroys any illusion of spontaneity, but combining the available musicians in this way is a nice touch.
The second half of the concert began with a presentation of the Royal Philharmonic Society (unrelated to the orchestra) Medal to Dutoit, before moving on to Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3 (Organ), with organist Cameron Carpenter. Unlike the Lalo, this really is more symphonic, although the organ is important when it’s heard. I enjoyed the performance, although somehow the timekeeping had gone awry and the concert finished fifteen minutes late, enough for me to miss my anticipated train home (I had no plans to stay for the late night Prom).
Friday’s concert was again popular: a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection). The BBC Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Sakari Oramo, and joined by soprano Elizabeth Watts and mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, and the Bach Choir and BBC Symphony Chorus. Oramo announced that the performance would be dedicated to the memory of Jiří Bělohlávek, the former chief conductor of the orchestra who died earlier this year. Oramo was animated and demonstrative throughout. Technically, there were one or two wobbles in the early stages, but they didn’t mar the drama of the first movement. I did feel, however, that the pace of the remainder of the symphony, and the final movement in particular, was on the slow side, and consequently it often lacked energy. Maybe some of that was me: I was promming for the third consecutive night, and it appears I also felt the last movement was on the slow side in 2006; however, the concert finished 10-15 minutes later than expected, so I don’t think it was just me. But even so, if Mahler 9 will always be modern music, then I think Mahler 2 will always be dramatic and exciting music.