David Truslove travelled to the Royal Albert Hall to immerse himself in Prom 28; with Tadaaki Otaka directing the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales and Philharmonia Chorus.
The second of two consecutive Proms from the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales (this one supported by the Philharmonia Chorus) brought an odd and far-reaching assortment of music encompassing Japanese, Russian and Welsh composers. It looked intriguing on paper but didn’t add up to much in any overarching sense, and was not helped by the music’s slow-medium-fast trajectory. At least the evening ended with a bang and made up for the first half’s unremitting slow tempi with a coupling as unlikely as you’ll hear anywhere.
First up was Tōru Takemitsu’s Twill by Twilight dedicated to the memory of his friend and fellow composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). Both men shared an interest in the relationship between music and the visual arts, and the work’s alliterative title reflects Feldman’s fondness for finely woven rugs and carpets. There was also the composers’ affinity for funereal tempi but leavened by richly detailed textures. Its thirteen or so minutes drifted by in an exotic haze of French impressionism, an opulent and sensuous sound world bearing the imprint of Ravel and Debussy. Here were no languorous fauns basking in the heat of a sultry afternoon or Greek-inspired Nymphs, but a work, according to Takemitsu, whose “subtle variations in pastel-like colours express the moment just after sunset when twilight turns towards darkness”. Written in 1988 (the year after Feldman’s death), Takemitsu’s rapt atmosphere was all beautifully conveyed and vividly brought to life with affection and sharp precision by Takaaki Otaka whose thirty-year association with the orchestra has clearly endeared him to the players.
A more recent link with the orchestra has been established with Huw Watkins who has been Composer-in-Association to BBC NOW since 2016, his three-year appointment generating a Cello Concerto and Spring first performed in Cardiff last year. His new work The Moon was a BBC commission to mark the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing and received its world premiere here. Watkins declared in a pre-performance interview his intention to convey the “otherness of the moon”, an idea enlarged in a programme note that expressed a desire “to capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth.” Anyone anticipating more slow tempi was not disappointed. A sense of wonder in a delicately scored orchestral introduction yielded to the first of four poetic settings by Shelley, Larkin and Whitman which moved from Romantic imagery through bleakness to despair. To these darkly introspective texts, the choir responded gamely but the choral writing never developed beyond conventional phrase patterns and rather ordinary melodic contours, despite aptly expressed poetic sentiments. If only Watkins had been as adventurous in his writing for the choir as he had been for the orchestra, where its tinkling colours and shifting sonorities repeatedly drew the ear. Notwithstanding its more dynamic interludes, the work didn’t quite add up to more than a pièce d’occasion, though choir and orchestra responded to it with firm conviction.
After the interval Rachmaninov’s The Bells formed the main work. Written in Rome between 1912-13 and using a free translation by Edgar Allan Poe of verses by the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, this choral symphony (as the composer himself labelled it) began almost timidly, lacking the sparkle that one might otherwise expect from a text relating to the child-like joy of sleigh bells and the promise of spring. Given the lack of communication from Otaka it was a wonder that the chorus came in so confidently, their explosive first entry owing more to the rigorous preparation from chorus masters Adrian Partington and Gavin Carr. Oleg Dolgov was a lightweight tenor and only just projected at times over choir and orchestra yet sounded much clearer over the airwaves. If there was little to excite in the opening movement, things blossomed in ‘Mellow wedding Bells’ where soprano Natalya Romaniw sang with beautifully poised phrases, responding to the text’s “tender dreams” with growing ardour. In ‘Loud Alarum Bells’ the chorus brought tremendous vigour to their “tale of horror” and their demonic pleas rang out with fierce conviction. The best was served at the end in ‘Mournful Iron Bells’ where, in addition to Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer’s delicate cor anglais, there was Iurii Samoilov’s assured bass – not so cavernous as one might hope for – but one possessed with enough fireside warmth to bring comfort to this haunting lament.
There followed a rousing account of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, Otaki now giving clear leads and creating one of the most exciting performances of this popular work I’ve heard in years, not quite taking us to the moon but bold, colourful and stirring.
Listen to Prom 28 now through the BBC Sounds app or website.
David Truslove is a critic and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.