Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No 3 (AKA the Organ Symphony) has long been musical Marmite. Some can’t stomach its bombast and its easy lyricism; others have flocked to performances ever since its acclaimed 1886 premiere in London. Saint-Saëns himself warned the prestigious Philharmonic Society, which had commissioned the new piece, that the symphony “will be formidable”.
Love it or loathe it, as Anna Lapwood played the viscera-quaking organ part in the symphony’s finale last night, “formidable” is certainly the word. But there’s more to this work than its famous ending – and despite the organ’s periodic prominence, it is a symphony, not a concerto. Under their music director, Mark Elder, the Hallé was a hefty, charismatic match for the Royal Albert Hall’s massive instrument (an organ that Saint-Saëns himself inaugurated in 1871): a well-oiled musical machine in its own right. Yes, there were moments when the ensemble didn’t quite bite, and others – quieter passages, their texture a finely spun orchestral fabric – where more hold-your-breath magic was needed. But there were also brilliantly bold brass solos (not to mention a seamless brass-choir blend), fuss-free fireworks from the orchestral piano and tautly managed shifts of mood.
The concert’s first half offered two takes on Beethoven. Elder presided over an ultra-tasteful performance of his Fourth Piano Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor as soloist (and cadenzas by Saint-Saëns). In comparison with the Hallé’s polite classicism and vibrato-lite phrasing, Grosvenor’s ever-gracious virtuosity was more muscular, capitalising fully on the sensitivity of touch of a modern grand piano. Past and present collided first, though, in the UK premiere of Unsuk Chin’s subito con forza, an orchestral miniature haunted by Beethovenian gestures. Emphatic opening chords, familiar rhythmic patterns, comically repetitive sequences: these all sounded anew amid Chin’s own exquisite orchestral palette – icy shivers of strings, rasping woodwind and ghostly muted trumpets.