Steph Power reviews a BBC National Orchestra of Wales season opener in Cardiff featuring works by composer Huw Watkins, conducted by Thomas Søndergård.
There are many fallacies wrapped up in our love affair with the idea of a pantheon of ‘great composers’, and they are often contradictory. For instance, we continue to rate the importance of composers from history according to their success in forging influential new paths, while snubbing those of our own time who are deemed experimental. And yet few composers actively set out to blaze a trail, and some of the most popular and enduring have shown little interest in innovation per se. Of the five diverse composers featured in this BBC National Orchestra of Wales season-opener in Cardiff, three may be cited as cases in point: Elgar, Rachmaninov and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s newly appointed, brilliantly accomplished Composer in Association, Huw Watkins, for whom the evening was in part an official welcome and introduction.
The concert offered a generous, off-beat stylistic sweep, balancing the overtly populist with an intense main event in Rachmaninov’s The Bells, and bringing together Russian and British composers from the late 19th century to the present day. Stravinsky’s Fireworks (1908) opened proceedings with a short, celebratory flare of colour under Principal Conductor, Thomas Søndergård. Composed as a wedding present to the daughter of his beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, the Stravinsky is really a piece of slightly wonky juvenilia, chiefly important as a sketch for his lush first ballet, The Firebird.*
Watkins’ London Concerto which followed was equally, if more quietly, dazzling in its orchestral palette – but proved far more substantial in breadth and disciplined invention. Cast in five movements as a kind of concerto grosso or sinfonia concertante, the work was named for its 2005 centenary commissioners, the London Symphony Orchestra, but has had to wait until now for its deserved second performance. No doubt this is partly due to the unusualness of its engaging solo trio of violin, bassoon and harp (persuasively played by Malin Broman, Rachel Gough and Hannah Stone). Watkins’ handling of form was particularly impressive, with a dynamic and, at times, welcomingly astringent use of harmony coupled with strong contrapuntal writing. With two movements devoted to orchestra alone, many fascinating partnerships unfolded between the soloists and orchestral players to create a tapestry which would reward repeated listenings without losing its direct appeal.
The other London piece of the concert was Elgar’s characterful Cockaigne Overture (1900-01), which opened the second half. Here, Thomas Søndergård conveyed a sense of proportion and restrained lyricism, but skated thinly over the score’s latent ambivalence and volcanic fire. Whilst Elgar is too often wrongly pigeon-holed as stiff and heavy with the ‘nobilmente’ designation he used for the first time in this score (bar sketches for the ‘Enigma’ Variations), here the performance also gave few hints of Elgar’s equal weight and wry sparkle. Ironically, following its premiere, Cockaigne had been dismissed by the critic Charles Maclean as having ‘an excess of fancy’ and paying ‘too little attention to form’. But perhaps we have all the grounds we need to dismiss such remarks as callow regression from one who also opined that women’s suffrage was a ‘truly nefarious cause’.
Seated high up behind the orchestra, the BBC National Chorus of Wales sat patiently awaiting their two daunting encounters with the Russian language. The first – the ‘Polvtsian Dances’ from Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor – drew cheers from the audience in closing the first half. However, it was the second which drew greater Slavic vocal character from the eager massed forces, in the form of Rachmaninov’s magnificent choral symphony. The Bells was written in 1912-13, on the cusp of World War I and the 1917 October Revolution which would sweep the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, and precipitate the bourgeois Rachmaninov’s flight from his motherland, never to return. The tolling of bells and the intoning of the Dies Irae held enormous significance for Rachmaninov, and both come together in this secular setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s intense, brooding poem in Konstantin Balmont’s narrative translation. As the chorus and orchestra dug deep, Thomas Søndergård deftly steered their journey from the light ‘Silver Sleigh Bells’ of the 1st movement to the dark, ‘Mournful Iron Bells’ of the final 4th with the aid of three superb soloists: soprano, Anastasia Kalagina; tenor, John Daszak; and the wonderfully reverberant bass, Mikhail Petrenko. Together – and with the exquisite lament of Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer’s cor anglais – they lent solemn authority to a performance which proved, appropriately enough, the ringing highlight of the evening.
* It will be interesting to see what, if any, resemblance Fireworks passes to a piece Stravinsky wrote for an entirely more sombre purpose in Rimsky’s funeral, 1909: long thought lost, the work has recently been discovered in the form of a set of orchestral parts found in the library of the St Petersburg Conservatoire.
This performance formed part of a Cardiff-wide celebration of Rachmaninov spanning BBC NOW to the Welsh National Opera and Philharmonia orchestras, St David’s Hall to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. For further details see facebook.com/cdfrach and/or #CardiffRach15
Header photo credit: Betina Skovbro
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 3 October 2015
Huw Watkins: London Concerto
Borodin: Prince Igor – Polvtsian Dances
Elgar: Overture ‘Cockaigne (In London Town)’
Rachmaninov: The Bells
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales
Conductor – Thomas Søndergård
Chorus Musical Director – Adrian Partington
Violin – Malin Broman / Bassoon – Rachel Gough / Harp – Hannah Stone / Soprano – Anastasia Kalagina / Tenor – John Daszak / Bass – Mikhail Petrenko
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.