Nigel Jarrett reviews the opening of BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ season, including works by Vaughan Williams and Ravel.
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams: Songs Of Travel
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel): Pictures At An Exhibition
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Conductor: Tadaaki Otaka
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, October 4, 2018
No-one quite knows what goes on inside the heads of concert organisers: why they choose these works and not others, why they combine this work with that. The opening of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s new season might have been more auspicious in terms of what music was decided: two really unrelated works by Vaughan Williams and a hum-dinging concert favourite by Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Where were the links? Maybe there were none. If you didn’t care for the Englishman there was a reason not to attend. Perhaps the promoters should have gone for broke and made it an all-Vaughan Williams evening.
Anyone familiar with RVW’s piano-accompanied version of Songs Of Travel, a setting of Robert Louis Stevenson, will realise two things: one, that its art-song antecedents are echoed more clearly in the piano part; and two, that the composer’s orchestral accompaniment for three of the songs and Roy Douglas’s of the remaining six more than fifty years later were uneven in their effects. As in Schubert, the piano is an almost equal partner with the singer, accompanying him on his song-cycle wanderings. In an orchestrated version it’s as though the itinerant Romantic is setting off in the company of a sophisticated town band, which he can never shake off.
It was interesting to note in the concert programme that Sir Thomas Allen’s performance of the work with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was the recommended recording. It was a slightly older and wiser Thomas Allen who joined the BBC NOW under conductor-laureate Tadaaki Otaka for the performance at this concert. Truth to tell, the orchestrations, especially where they detract attention from the soloist or starts a kind of convolvulus growth up his legs, do the songs few favours, despite the efforts of Osaka to loosen their hold. Allen would probably be the first to admit aged 74 that his voice has been in better shape. This was noticeable not in complete songs but in parts of the whole, though he set out on his journey confidently enough.
As it happened, the cycle took on a different complexion because of the experience and renown which the singer brought to the platform. Long before the ninth and last song I Have Trod The Upward And The Downward Slope, a hymn to resignation but not despair, we knew that the traveller had endured much, and the expression of that sufferance and fortitude was there in the voice. Yet Stevenson acknowledges a possible return to the regions of loss; for a singer or wayfarer of Allen’s maturity that’s a fast-receding option. The penultimate Bright Is The Ring Of Words marked the pathos of all this, where the dead singer-wanderer is a memory in the imagination of his swain.
Otaka’s take on Vaughan William’s Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis might for some tastes have been a little too ponderous and reverential even for a work premiered in a cathedral (Gloucester, 1910) and arguably belonging in the echoing fastnesses of one. The hived-off string quartet was lodged in the right-of-platform entrance, and in a concert hall one witnesses (and hears) only a nominal result of the division of labour established by the composer, in some cathedral performances a geographical one as well. Still, there was something marvellous in the hushed tones and soaring euphonies of the BBC’s playing and Otaka’s insistence on his personal take. The solo contributions were delicate and well-judged.
For a work to establish how the orchestra meant to go on this season, Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, in Ravel’s super orchestration, couldn’t have been bettered. Otaka didn’t waste any time over the perambulations between the pictorial episodes, leaving their sense of direction to those musicians involved in Ravel’s ringing of changes. (It would be good now and then to encounter one of the several other orchestrations of the work, including Vladimir Ashkenazy’s. The miracle of Ravel’s effort is that it doesn’t sound like anything by him.) Nor was there in Otaka’s view, any merit in haste, despite the way being made to The Great Gate Of Kiev. Grandeur and celebration could wait. That evil dwarf depicted in Gnomes with irregular motion and outbursts was as graphic as the succeeding Il Vecchio castello was solemn and song like; the quicker portraits (Tuileries) as sprightly as the more solemn, heavy-laden ones (Bydlo). All-round fine playing with pointed detail and expectancy.
Header photo of Tadaaki Otaka by Masahide Sato
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Nigel Jarrett is a former newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, published by Parthian, was praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and many others, and was long listed for the Edge Hill Prize. Jarrett writes for Jazz Journal, the Wales Arts Review, Slightly Foxed, Acumen poetry magazine, and several others. His poetry, fiction, and essays appear widely. For many years he was a daily newspaper music critic, and now freelances in that capacity. When he can find time, he swims.