The emphasis on piano concertos at this year’s Proms has already begun to weigh me down slightly, and we’re only in the third week of the season. True, the finale of Leif Over Andsnes’ Beethoven cycle was sublime, and I was won over by Valery Gergiev’s evening of preposterous Prokofiev. But do we need to hear more Mozart? I wasn’t sure.
Then again, it isn’t often that we get to hear a concerto from the earlier end of Mozart’s career – programmes are mostly dominated by the pieces he composed during his time in Vienna, such as the famous No 20 or 23. And it’s even rarer to get a concerto for two pianos, although Mozart’s E flat major effort is one of the more well-known to use both instruments. It’s often speculated that Mozart wrote the piece in the late 1770s to play with his older sister Nannerl, an accomplished pianist with whom he had toured Europe when they were children.
Hundreds of years later, this is still a piece that runs in families. Here, we heard it from French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque (with the latter’s husband, Semyon Bychkov, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in support). They first performed the piece at the Proms in 2009, and in fact there’s a long history of sisters doing so – its very first Proms performance was by Adela and Mathilde Verne in 1903. The level of cooperation and communication required for a concerto like this, where the two parts are constantly overlapping and merging in a single line, is clearly something that comes easier to musicians with an already-established connection.
This concerto isn’t among Mozart’s most formally innovative or showy, but the Labèques gave a good account of it, nonetheless, flourishing their way through the cadenzas and fast movements. Afterwards, they gave an unaccompanied encore of something very different – the fourth of Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos, with the stark minimalism contrasting nicely with the swooping, sweet lines of the Mozart that came before it.
The star of the night, though, as it always was going to be, was Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7. Written during the Nazi siege of the city in 1941, its a piece with a political, turbulent history – the score was microfiched and flown to the US in order that it could be played in the west, and the constant presence of drumbeats and trumpet calls gives the piece a distinctively militaristic flavour.
During the second movement, the Royal Albert Hall roof played its part too, echoing the sound of the snare drum and timpani back down into the auditorium and giving the impression of a much larger percussive ensemble advancing on the building. Whether Shostakovich intended that or not, it was very evocative. Some superb playing from the woodwind, in particular the bassoons, gave a freshness to this interpretation of a popular piece, and of course the fierce conclusion to the finale elicited a rapturous response from the audience.