thu 30/06/2022

Prom 28: BBCNOW, Otaka review - fantastical choral expedition | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 28: BBCNOW, Otaka review - fantastical choral expedition

Prom 28: BBCNOW, Otaka review - fantastical choral expedition

Welsh orchestra sets its sights on Japan, Russia - and the moon

Tadaaki Otaka, Conductor Laureate of the National Orchestra of Wales

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ second consecutive night at the Proms, accompanied by their associated National Chorus, ventured further out of the classical mainstream than the first.

Where Wednesday night had seen a solid Germanic programme of Brahms, Wagner and Mozart Thursday saw a British world premiere and some enchanting Japanese music, alongside two meaty Russian classics. By one classic test this was an engrossing concert: the time flew by and I barely looked at my watch.

Tōru Takemitsu’s Twill by Twilight of 1988 is a favourite of the Prom’s conductor Takaaki Otaka, and he brought to life its exquisite detailing and luscious textures. The piece is in memoriam the American composer Morton Feldman, whose slow-paced, gnomic music in not similar in sound to Takemitsu, but shares an elusiveness. Takemitsu owes much to 20th century French music, and there are distinct echoes of Debussy in the details of the orchestration and of Messiaen in the radiant harmony. Otaka was neat and precise, like a priest directing a sacred ritual, shaping the soundscape delicately and drawing down a veil at the end.Welsh composer Huw WatkinsWelsh composer Huw Watkins (pictured above by Hanya Chlala) has written several pieces for the BBC NOW but The Moon is his first for the BBC National Chorus. There is a lunar theme to the Proms in this anniversary year but Watkins’s piece is not about travelling to the moon but about earthbound responses to it, in texts from Shelley, Larkin and Whitman. The piece was very successful, with some terrific orchestral writing, from the skittering woodwind opening to a powerful climax in the second orchestral interlude.

The use of the choir was restrained, with the poetic lines declaimed straightforwardly. I felt the choir sometimes sat outside the action in the orchestra and could have been more fully integrated, and that perhaps Watkins was chary of pushing them too much technically – although the later Rachmaninov showed them capable of meeting any demands.

Nonetheless The Moon was extremely enjoyable and well-tailored to a Proms audience, the music – dread word – “accessible” without compromising its integrity. The orchestration was vivid and well-played by the band, the woodwind shining as a group, and the luminous ending, reinforced by the Albert Hall’s organ, was beautifully judged.

In Prom 23 I heard Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a product of his years as an international piano legend. The choral symphony The Bells dates from earlier in his career when he was still based in Russia, but in some way sounds more modern than the Rhapsody, especially in the John Adams-like opening of the third movement. There are also echoes of Stravinsky’s contemporaneous score The Rite of Spring, with something of the same atavistic energy and pounding percussion.

Here the chorus was augmented by the Philharmonia Chorus, who added a weight of sound, if not the most incisive Russian consonants. Otaka had a winning way with the singers, in what is a difficult space, with them a long way from him and each other – the men and women of the chorus have the organ between them. But he communicated clearly what he wanted with mostly discreet gestures – although he gave the big wind-up to their electric first entry: “Slïshish!” – “hear!”Welsh soprano Natalya RomaniwOf the soloists, Oleg Dolgov had a powerful tenor that soared over the orchestra. Baritone IIuri Samoilov was not earthbound enough, lacking the darkness needed in the mournful final movement. Best was Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw (pictured above by Patrick Allen), rich and sultry in the “Mellow Wedding Bells” movement, the perfect voice for the occasion.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the ballet Prince Igor, which, like The Bells, received their UK premiere courtesy of Henry Wood. The strange ritual dances of an invented folk tradition have a terrific energy and almost filmic switches from one set of characters to another. The woodwind again were captivating, with winning solos from Matthew Featherstone (flute) and Robert Plane (clarinet), and the last two minutes, leading to the smash-cut final chord, were properly thrilling.


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters