St David’s Hall, Cardiff, July 21 2015
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Piano: John Lill
Conductor: Owain Arwel Hughes
Wagner: Overture, Tannhäuser
Mendelssohn: Scherzo, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op 61
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 2
Elgar: ‘Enigma Variations’ (Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36)
At a time when festivals are becoming ever more ubiquitous across the arts, any Proms organiser has to be prepared to think outside the box to create distinctive, innovative programmes. In London the BBC Proms has become not so much a festival as a season-long behemoth; certainly it is the largest and most widely accessible, if not necessarily the ‘greatest’, classical music festival in the world, fuelled by the corporate might of the broadcaster. 2015 sees its 120th anniversary (121st season), but, as listeners of Radio 3 might attest, the relatively staid programming this year is indicative of a holding period between artistic directors.*
As the BBC Proms – and indeed the entire corporation – faces its own challenges to stay sharp and relevant in an increasingly hostile political and financial climate, the comparatively tiny, wholly independent Welsh Proms has survived by a whisker to celebrate its 30th birthday this July in Cardiff. The disastrous withdrawal of Cardiff City Council funding has been well documented – and so too has the generosity and spirit of founder and artistic director Owain Arwel Hughes, who has been prepared once again, alongside help from other sources, to dig deep into his own pockets to ensure the festival’s survival for this year at least.
Perhaps inevitably, as Nigel Jarrett pointed out in his review of the Opening Night, the ensuing programming has proved piecemeal, despite Hughes’ impressive achievement in bringing a variety of top orchestras, ensembles and soloists to the capital for the week-long event. Ironically, the very night of Hughes’ focal ‘Masterpieces’ programme, on July 21, when he conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at St David’s Hall, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was performing for the second time already this Proms season in London. Sinfonia Cymru are poised to appear at the up and coming, three-year-old Bristol Proms on July 29 following their successful debut there in 2014. Neither orchestra will appear at the Welsh Proms this year.
Nonetheless, concert-goers turned out in droves in Cardiff to hear Hughes, the BSO and the distinguished pianist John Lill in a concert of popular classics as comforting as they were defiant in the face of bleak economic realities. This was Hughes’ single scheduling of a concert containing longer pieces performed in their entirety, in a week otherwise frustratingly devoted to excerpts and shorter works. Even so, albeit received with appreciation by the audience, the concert was in some respects a patchwork quilt affair.
Two contrasting excerpts opened the evening, dating from the same, mid-19th century period: the Overture from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845), followed by a snippet of the composer’s nemesis, the 1843 Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The styles and contexts of these works could not be more different, with Wagner continuing to lay the foundations of what would become, in effect, a radical musical metaphysics, and Mendelssohn responding with still-youthful, lyrical delight to Shakespeare’s beloved fantasy. Here, the roiling inner layers of the Tannhäuser proved elusive to Hughes, who favoured stepped dynamics over thematic shaping and balanced textures. However, he and the orchestra felt more at ease with the Scherzo, with its crisp, bubbly woodwind and lightly dancing motifs; the first violins here as elsewhere proving the strongest section of the strings.
Between pieces, Hughes thanked the audience for coming, stating with typical mildness that this particular Proms ‘has been quite an adventure for me, I must say.’ The ensuing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2 gave them the chance to cheer their support of both conductor and soloist, John Lill. Appropriately enough, given the rollercoaster ride of the Welsh Proms’ recent history, the piece happens to be one which heralded a new dawn for its composer. Rachmaninoff had fallen into despair and stopped composing altogether after the catastrophic premiere of his Symphony No 1 in 1897. Luckily for us, three years later, and following treatment for depression, he produced this tempestuous, dramatic work to great acclaim, and it has remained enormously popular ever since.
Lill has always been refreshingly free of showy gestures, rather embodying a deeper, more thoughtful romantic pianism. Depending on your point of view, this either bodes well for a concerto more steeped in subtle mood shifts than some care to acknowledge, or threatens a lack of the extrovert impulses so central to its expression. Lill’s performance had lovely moments in both regards, but he and the orchestra struggled to attain the higher reaches of passion and raw commitment. Nonetheless, the big tunes were all there, and a glittering, quicksilver virtuosity belying the soloist’s 70-some years. And the orchestra responded with spirit; well versed in Russian music under its Ukrainian chief conductor since 2007, Kirill Karabits. Here, the second movement was the most cohesive, with the pianist forming the central hub of an amply-coloured Adagio sostenuto.
Elgar’s popularly titled Enigma Variations is more natural territory for Hughes, and he dived into the famous theme and its fourteen variations with brisk enthusiasm (the central, ninth variation and core of the work, ‘Nimrod’, having popped up at the Proms Opening Night with the Philharmonia Orchestra). The conductor’s eschewing of sentimentality was salient, and he proved alive to Elgar’s keenly observed and often witty characterisations. The Variations are full of contrasts and quirky touches, but it is Elgar’s brilliant orchestral inventiveness which saw this piece finally launch his career at the turn of the century – at the very time Rachmaninoff was overcoming his own struggles to be taken seriously as a composer.
Not all the variations were played with technical distinction (from fluffed passagework to dodgy intonation in the double basses, and with the tripping rhythms of Variation X, ‘Dorabella’, hanging by a thread). But they were played with hugely enjoyable gusto – which ultimately matters more. Indeed, the most boisterous variations were the most successful, and the brass were clearly delighted to be given their fanfare heads in Variations VII and XI (which respectively portray a Malvern architect attempting to play the piano, and a bulldog, belonging to the then Hereford Cathedral organist, attempting to retrieve a stick from the River Wye).
Elgar, of course, remains synonymous with the Last Night of the BBC Proms – though he would undoubtedly squirm at the ghastly jingoism with which his music is too often unfairly associated. His presence here, in this Cardiff concert, prompted some interesting questions about the Welsh Proms going forward – assuming that they do indeed have a future, as many people wish. For surely it is time to embrace a new vision of the Proms which doesn’t cast Wales in a parochial, ‘poorer cousin’ relation to the enormous festival in London, with which it can hardly hope to compete, and which itself is looking to find new ways to evolve. That would entail taking a good, hard look at the repertoire, presentation and purpose of the series overall in light of 21st-century trends, and finding some innovative way of departing from the current London model; Bristol is doing just that in its own, totally different, way (and it will be interesting to see how that still-new festival grows over time, given its proximity to Cardiff).
Whether the process in Wales involves greater emphasis on Welsh composers, say, or young soloists or conductors – or perhaps some overarching theme for the season, embracing different kinds of contemporary music-focused ensembles, for instance, or technology and education to make the Proms a more truly national festival – it’s to be hoped that Owain Arwel Hughes is given, and chooses to grasp, such opportunity in future years. He has done incredibly well to keep the festival going thus far under enormous pressure.
* The newly appointed (ex-Glyndebourne chief) David Pickard is waiting in the wings to assume control from the long-standing Roger Wright via Edward Blakeman, who took on the stewardship of this summer’s event after Wright’s departure for Aldeburgh Festival in September 2014. Pickard will report to Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3.
Photo of pianist John Lill, courtesy of St David’s Hall.