If Saint-Saëns’ G minor piano concerto were an opera it would be, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a dramma giocoso. It opens with a chill minor-key musical blast that seems to herald the arrival of the Don’s supernatural stone guest but ends with a jolly knees-up. “From Bach to Offenbach”, so the annotator’s cliché runs but there’s some truth in it, for this is a work where austerity and gaiety sit side-by-side.
Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance encompassed its various moods with ease; cleanly articulated thunderous chords alternating with coquettishly delicate passagework and Saint-Saëns occasional vamp-till-ready passages were adroitly made to sound better than that. The CBSO under Andrew Litton (himself a fine pianist) gave excellent support.
Litton has long been a perceptive conductor of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, as his recordings of their complete symphonies testify. The former’s youthful tone poem The Rock was given a splendid performance from its bass-led opening – black as the pit of Acheron – to the contrasting skittish woodwind section with some delightful playing from Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute). Litton built up the final delayed when-will-it-modulate section into an ecstasy worthy of Scriabin. Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique began rather stodgily – yes it is episodic but it shouldn’t appear blatantly so – but Litton’s interpretation grew in stature. The oddly limping waltz movement was bitter sweet and the third movement blazed tremendously – brass let off the leash – eliciting a spontaneous (if rapidly repressed) round of applause. The final adagio lamentoso had both pathos and dignity – full of heart but not worn on the sleeve.