BBC Proms: Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

BBC Proms: Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony
Hallé, Sir Mark Elder, Benjamin Grosvenor, Anna Lapwood

Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2021

The anniversary of the Royal Albert Hall and its monumental organ has resulted in rather more than the usual number of organ events during this year’s BBC Proms. Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings (reviewed here) made a wonderful start on the first night. It was followed by two solo recitals (reviewed here and here) and two other very different Proms, both including the organ, on successive nights. The second of these is reviewed here, from the BBC Radio 3 broadcast.

After the very contemporary use of the organ from James McVinnie the night before (reviewed here), the organ returned for the famed Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony in C minor, the conclusion of a concert from the Hallé orchestra under Sir Mark Elder. For reasons best known to those at the BBC who arrange such things, the star soloist of the evening was very obviously pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, but the promotional photo was of organist Anna Lapwood. I wonder why?

The concert opened with the premier of Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza, a piece inspired by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The bustle and turmoil of Beethoven’s concerto was reflected in contempory style, with the piano interjecting into the orchestral texture. Benjamin Grosvenor was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4, using cadenzas by Saint-Saëns, whose anniversary is one of those celebrated in this year’s Proms

The Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony is something of a gift to organists. The prominence of the organ far outways its actual role. It was originally titled Symphonie No. 3 “avec orgue”, and only uses the organ in the second part of each of the two movements. There are virtuoso piano parts for two dueting pianists who rarely get a mention, but the organist gets start billing and applause for a relatively easy organ part.

Saint-Saëns saw it as the final monument of his career, commenting that “What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again”. It has become one of the best known symphonies. The organ is presented in two principal guises. It first creeps in, almost apologetically, with a low pedal note at the start of the Poco Adagio that concludes the first movement. With the hushed strings it supports lush melodic sequences, adding gravitas and rumbles to the orchestral sound. The BBC announcer mentioned that the rumbles at the end of that movement vibrated through his little box to the extent that a printer on the desk started to shuffle towards the edge of the table. Such organ notes are felt, rather than heard.

The organ reappears in very different guise at the start the Maestoso that follows the energetic start of the second, final movement. The massive organ C major chord is a heart stopping moment, given the right volume, which the Albert Hall organ certainly has. The organ blasts out a chorale-like theme before jousting with the orchestra and a wide variety of moods. A descending organ bass warns you that the climactic ending is nigh.

The tricky thing, particularly so in the Albert Hall, is the balance between organ and orchestra. For much of the time the organ is in support role, but it also needs to dominate. Anna Lapwood and Sir Mark Elder managed this balance well. Apparently wearing pink jeans for the occasion, Lapwood made the most of her opportunity to show off the Albert Hall on its 150th anniversary.