BBC Proms: BBC Philharmonic/Mena – review

A Japanese pianist, blind from birth, played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 at the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s sold-out Prom on Tuesday. Nobuyuki Tsujii proved he has a sensitive ear, a light touch and the sort of technique that needs no allowances. But his smoothly sculpted performance lacked temperamental contours: it was yet another soft-centred rendition of this much-loved piece. Intensity was missing just where the music required it most, as the finale’s quest for fulfilment gathered pace.

For his efforts Tsujii was greeted with an enormous, sustained ovation – justifiably so. However much we may try to judge such a performance on musical merits alone, we can’t. Where 99.9 per cent of top professional musicians need all their faculties just to make a start, Tsujii has triumphed against enormous odds. Will I be rushing to hear him again? Probably not.

The Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic showed what a natural partnership it has forged with Juanjo Mena since he became principal conductor two years ago. In Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony after the interval he ratcheted up the drama in a clear, unfussy way, while the orchestra – always a joy to hear in London – provided suppleness, finesse and a strong sense of personality.

These qualities had underpinned their ravishingly coloured performance of David Matthews’ new tone poem A Vision of the Sea at the start of the concert. Lasting about 20 minutes, the piece resembles an aural watercolour – woodwinds evoking gull cries, brass forecasting storm-squalls, percussion percolating into stillness – in which mood is paramount and orchestration is king. But the argument seems small-scale and the palette mirrors Debussy’s in La mer, suggesting that Matthews (born 1943) is fixated on a dewy-eyed vision of the musical past.

For all its neat and tidy touches, A Vision of the Sea stays safely on dry land, reluctant to engage emotionally with the size and sweep of its maritime subject.

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