Prom 43: RPO/Litton – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Philharmonic is making only a single appearance at this year's Proms, and was clearly determined to make the most of it. The programme Andrew Litton conducted lasted more than three hours, with two intervals: a pair of 20th-century symphonies flanked a performance of Bartók's Second Piano Concerto, with iconic US pieces – Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Barber's Adagio for Strings – included for good measure.

It proved a decently played, but rather shapeless, unwieldy affair, with Yuja Wang's account of the Bartók its real highlight. The young Chinese pianist is a prodigious talent, with an astonishing technique – the evenness and clarity of her playing can be jaw-dropping – and the makings of a real musical personality to go with it. But she is still a work in progress, and for every moment of brilliance in the concerto there were others that were under-characterised, when her playing seemed to be ornamenting the music, rather than shaping it decisively.

The link between the symphonies, Bax's Second and Prokofiev's Fourth, was the Russian-American conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered both, in 1929 and 1930 respectively – although, strictly speaking, the version of the Prokofiev Litton conducted was the revision from 1947, a very different, more sober work than the original, which seems too well-mannered for its own good. The Bax was new to the Proms, the only one of his symphonies never played there before. Like so much of his music, it's most convincing when it's at its most introspective and highly wrought, contemplating remote harmonies in dark-hued colours; once the music tries to generate any pace it tends to become rhythmically four-square and flabby, though Litton did his best to keep the performance as sleek and toned as possible.

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Andrew Clements

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