Although the celebration of Wagner’s bicentenary has been the most impressive feature of this year’s Proms, Benjamin Britten’s centenary has not been overlooked. This concert by the Orchestre de Paris offered an appropriately cross-Channel programme – a mostly English first half, focused on Britten, followed by a return journey back to 19th-century France in the second.
The music itself also suggested an ongoing entente cordiale. While he was composing his Violin Concerto in the 1930s, Britten made a trip to Paris, where (bizarrely) he took in an evening at the Folies Bergère; and Saint-Saëns wrote his Symphony No.3 as the result of a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in London and conducted the premiere himself in 1886 at the old St James’s Hall, situated between Regent Street and Piccadilly.
The programme opened with the effect of pealing bells in Arvo Pärt’s brief elegy, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. Then Janine Jansen was the energetic, authoritative soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto. There is almost certainly nobody else today who can play the concerto better, so gripping is her technical mastery (the strength and beauty of tone as she soared up into the clouds at the end of the long cadenza were remarkable). Unfortunately, the Orchestre de Paris under its musical director Paavo Järvi was heavy handed in comparison. Perhaps it was felt that the concerto needed to be played on a big scale in this hall, with the climaxes hammered home by the percussion, but the result was clumsy, and the playing lacked precision.
The French half started with an eager, if not pinpoint-exact performance of Berlioz’s overture “Le corsaire”. Although Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3 (the best-known one with organ solo) was first performed elsewhere in London, it might have been written with the Victorian grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall in mind. Järvi set the symphony off to a rather tame start, but the sentimentality of the slow movement was judiciously indulged, and the last two movements were well drilled as well as rousing. Thierry Escaich was the organist, pulling out the stops to give the recently-renovated Royal Albert Hall organ its moment of glory. After that, a bright Bizet encore was just what was needed to cleanse the palate.