This concert’s rubric was “Backward Glimpses”, the performances of the Ravel and the Rachmaninov mainly dutiful and largely earthbound, the plum being a barnstorming account of Saint-Saëns with Benjamin Grosvenor.
Anyone hoping to sense a rustle of ballgown or tap of stiletto from Jacek Kaspszyk’s account of Valses nobles et sentimentales might have been disappointed. Its homage to Schubert (conceived for piano in 1911 and orchestrated the following year) is by turns impetuous and languorous, but this sequence of waltzes needed a collective loosening of collar and corset. Kaspszyk’s clear but rigid beat coaxed plenty of Gallic charm, transparency of detail and exotic colouring, yet La Belle Époque was suggested only faintly, energy contained.
Not so the explosive vitality heard in the Saint-Saëns whose long career spanned Schumann’s Carnaval to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Grosvenor gave this Bach-to-Offenbach piece an undeniable sense of authority with playing that covered the full gamut of dynamics and colour. The opening’s Baroque echoes blazed with grandeur and the ensuing nocturne unfolded with perfectly calibrated weight. There followed a second movement of scintillation and swagger, buoyant and witty, the music’s unbuttoned manner captured with affection. In the Finale, Grosvenor set a bracing speed, caution thrown to the wind, underlining rhetoric and whimsy, urgency and joie de vivre. The BSO enjoyed itself, too, and Grosvenor added Moszkowski’s A-flat Etude, Opus 72/11, as a rapt encore.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940) – his swansong – fared less convincingly in an account in which Kaspszyk drew battleship-grey colours and tepid tone. Incisive chords near the start produced a spark of life, but edge-of-seat drama was in short supply and it was Kyle Horch’s plangent alto saxophone which eventually caught the ear, along with a fruity bass clarinet. String-playing was tenderly warm, though the soul of Mother Russia never quite emerged; it was more Dorset on a cold January evening. Much more compelling was the macabre waltz movement, skittering woodwinds contributing to its hallucinogenic effect. A sombre, valedictory Finale was curiously underpowered until the end (the ‘Dies irae’ reined in) when Barnaby Archer’s pounding timpani brought fresh life to a polished but prosaic rendition.