wed 17/07/2024

Prom 7: Urioste, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Otaka review – old friends, new worlds | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 7: Urioste, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Otaka review – old friends, new worlds

Prom 7: Urioste, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Otaka review – old friends, new worlds

Bittersweet Coleridge-Taylor, full-cream Rachmaninov – and a palate-cleansing Fifth

Sun and shadow: Tadaaki Otaka, Elena UriosteAll images Andy Paradise/BBC

A full house, and television cameras: rarer events at the Proms than they used to be (or should be). Both lent a sense of occasion to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s visit to the Royal Albert Hall with their Conductor Laureate, Tadaaki Otaka. The cameras (for a BBC Four broadcast on Friday) had descended not for Cardiff’s long-serving Japanese stalwart – who first led BBC NOW in 1987 – but for Elena Urioste’s performance of the Violin Concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The Proms first hosted this work to considerable acclaim in 1912, just weeks after the African-British composer’s premature death aged 37 (an early score, improbably enough, went down with the Titanic and had to be recopied). A Rachmaninov rarity prefaced the concerto and the antithesis of a rarity – Beethoven’s Fifth – closed the programme in Otaka’s lithe, brisk and light-footed style. 

Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux began life on the keyboard in the 1910s but, in 1930, a selection of five got the full orchestral works, courtesy of Ottorino Respighi. His typically spectacular, atmospheric, highly coloured orchestration brings a strong programmatic flavour to pieces that, on the piano, had told their own more inscrutable story. La mer et les mouettes paints rocking, swelling sea pictures on rippling low strings and via moody marine brass that almost made you taste the salt. Delius loomed in the offing. La Foire swung into a carnival-time stomp with some almost-Hollywood gloss and sheen while, in the Marche Funèbre, gathering menace climaxes in exultant Rachmaninov-branded bells. That said, Otaka’s array of shades also reminded me that, a few years earlier, Ravel had worked his own magic on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: that gallery of divergent moods and textures surely finds echoes here. The fairy-tale of Le chaperon rouge et le loup (Little Red Riding Hood) took us deeper into the Russian folkloric woods as Otaka led a scary, breakneck gallop with some spine-chilling predatory brass, while the robust, jaunty Marche that winds up the set edged closer to Prokofiev's terrain. Otaka (pictured above) made the entire sequence a showcase for the instrumental palette of his players: rich, for sure, but graceful and clean-lined rather than overwhelmingly lavish.

In sunburst yellow, Elena Urioste (pictured above) made a thoroughly engaging case for the Coleridge-Taylor concerto, her airy, silvery tone and fine filigree detail well matched to its melodic invention and elegant reveries. Coleridge-Taylor wrote it for American violinist Maud Powell, one of his champions, and originally planned a piece rooted in African-American spirituals. Something of that conception survives in the bittersweet harmonies of the memorable theme that drives the Maestoso first movement. But overall, the style feels nearer to the ecumenical song-like lyricism of Dvořák’s American phase: vernacular in its shadings, yes, but not culturally specific. No matter: Urioste’s ravishing cantabile touch made the most of a dominant solo part while the orchestral accompaniment very much plays second fiddle.

Indeed, the lovely middle movement, a nocturne-like andante semplice, takes us far along the road to the romance or rhapsody rather than concerto proper: hardly a problem, when the results delight. Otaka, who has excelled in Elgar and Glazunov as well as Dvořák, discreetly caught the yearning, gently melancholy spirit of the piece. The rondo-like finale saw orchestral textures thicken as Coleridge-Taylor crafts variations on a bustling dance, while Otaka gave Uristo’s soaring passagework the space to shine. The tension here between Coleridge-Taylor’s gift for fine-spun salon prettiness and an earthier, deeper, rhythmically complex idiom hints at how he might have developed had he lived. Urioste’s encore fed us a pure sugar rush: Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow”, arranged by Tom Poster, in partnership with the NOW leader, Nick Whiting and his string principals. 

As for the Fifth: what can one say? First, that Otaka cleverly deploys the strengths of his mid-size band: agility, flexibility, an energising  push and pulse, and well-marked contrasts of tempi and dynamics. This was no torrential wall of sound but a lucid, bold, illuminated mosaic in which Beethoven's astonishing sonic and harmonic coups across the orchestral spectrum – from piccolo to basses – shone bright and clear. Sometimes (albeit with conventional forces) it even had a period-performance vibe. The Allegro con brio felt fleet-footed, dance-driven, almost Mozartian, light on the “fateful” doom and gloom. The disruptive oboe solo (Steven Hudson) jolted just as it should. As for the ensuing lilt and swing of violas and cellos, they really made you hear that the Andante con moto means just that: and Otaka never lost his moto. Here, as elsewhere, he also brought a theatrical excitement to the advent of piano passages or sudden forte bursts. 

Those spotlit double basses – elephants dancing, suggests EM Forster in Howards End – skipped and marched implacably though the scherzo, while the heart-leaping transition to the triumphant finale saw Otaka’s trombones blaze (Donal Bannister, Adam Hanna, Darren Smith) while Lindsey Ellis’s piccolo soared jubilantly over the whole show. Otaka’s dynamic switches and shocks, with the relentless building pace of the closing passages, gave this Fifth the edgy, propulsive quality it needs rather than monumental grandeur. There was plenty of applause between movements. For a work crammed with utterly revolutionary coups, why not? If the Proms can restore the thrill of discovery to this oldest of musical friends, they still have the right stuff. 

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