Arcana at the Proms – Prom 28: Tadaaki Otaka conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Rachmaninov & Huw Watkins

Prom 28: Iurii Samoilov (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, below), Oleg Dolgov (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (above)

Takemitsu Twill by Twilight (1988)
Huw Watkins The Moon (2018-19) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov The Bells (1912-13)
Borodin Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 8 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Tadaaki Otaka) Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Given his commission brief, to write a choral piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, Huw Watkins must have been tempted to set Neil Armstrong’s immortal ‘one giant leap’ quote to music. Instead however he opted to ‘capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth’. In doing so he set four intriguing texts pre-dating the first manned visit to our original satellite – two from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one each from Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

The four were stitched together like phases of the moon in a continuously running 20 minutes, with plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to have their say in between. Watkins has an interesting musical language, always rooted in tonality but using evocative colours and harmonies hinted at in works for chorus and orchestra by Holst, Vaughan Williams or even Hugh Wood.

The Moon had a very satisfactory flow to it, and was passionately delivered by the 130-strong BBC National Chorus of Wales, who clearly enjoyed the experience. Given its length it makes a tricky piece to programme or to appraise on one listen, but it is to be hoped in this anniversary year we get more chances to acquaint ourselves with a composer who writes in a very human voice, and found the ‘definite and bright’ description of Larkin’s verse. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, but surprisingly few composers form a connection with their audience as pronounced as Watkins did here, and even less make the words as clear as he did.

He was of course helped by his ‘home’ orchestra, conducted by a returning prodigal in Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka. Making his first visit to the Proms since 2015. Otaka opened with a piece by his dear friend Toru Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight, in memory of Morton Feldman, was in clear thrall to the Debussy of Nocturnes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The piece is typical of Takemitsu’s compositions in its dealing with orchestral colour, melody and harmony on equal standing, and it runs slowly if inevitably. In this performance it panned out beautifully, the expansive orchestral sound guided by Otaka’s steady yet relaxed direction.

Otaka has a special place for the works of Rachmaninov, having recorded the symphonies and piano concertos for Nimbus back in the early 1990s. Yet the Russian composer’s choral symphony The Bells was absent from this project, and it was great to hear it in such full-bodied form here. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were boosted still further by the 100-strong Philharmonia Chorus, making a terrific bank of sound that carried all before it – and yet which, thanks to Otaka’s careful balancing, was complemented by the orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud Alarm Bells, the third movement, was suitably terrifying especially at the end, Otaka driving at a quick tempo, and this balanced out the relative joy felt in the first movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, where tenor Oleg Dolgov was a fulsome presence. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sang beautifully in Mellow Wedding Bells, the second movement, her voice effortlessly soaring up to a top B flat without a hint of effort, while baritone Iurii Samoilov offered a darker hue for the depths of Mournful Iron Bells, whose late shift from darkness to light was beautifully done. Rachmaninov’s choral epic has been well served by the Proms in recent years – I remember a terrific outing directed by Vladimir Jurowski – and this was another fine advocacy.

Finishing with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances was a masterstroke, sending the audience home with several tunes in the locker that simply refused to leave for the rest of the evening! What a gifted melodist Borodin was, and how frustrating that because of his day job – a chemist – he did not leave more for us to enjoy. What he did leave still gives much pleasure, however, and the Polovtsian Dances benefited from such a big choir at their disposal.

The women floated the tune of the Young Girls’ Dance beautifully, while the men – while not quite hitting the passion of Russian voices in this music – were still fulsome and bold. Several orchestral solos stood out, not least from clarinetist Robert Plane, while Otaka’s pacing and linking of the sections was ideal. At 71 the conductor still looks in fine fettle, and his ‘sleep’ gesture at the end was borne more of mischief than genuine fatigue. It seems he, like the rest of us, was fired anew by the passionate Russian music of the concert’s second half.

Wigmore Mondays – Simon Höfele & Frank Dupree in 20th century works for trumpet and piano

Simon Höfele (trumpet, above) & Frank Dupree (piano, below)

Enescu Légende (1906) (2:07-8:20)
Takemitsu Paths (In Memoriam Witold Lutoslawski) (1994) (8:39-14:48
Hindemith Trumpet Sonata (1939) (16:56-33:30)
Savard Morceau de Concours (1903) (35:20-41:05)
Gaubert Cantabile et scherzetto (1909) (41:33-46:20)
Charlier Solo de Concours (1900) 47:39-54:26)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 28 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits Sebastian Heck (Simon Höfele)

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

There is more music for the combination of solo trumpet and piano than you might think – and how gratifying for the BBC New Generation Artist Simon Höfele to remind us of that on his debut at the Wigmore Hall. Forming a most impressive partnership with pianist Frank Dupree, he gave us four works from the first decade of the 20th century, three by composers new to Arcana pages – and a masterpiece of the century’s repertoire.

Initially playing a trumpet ‘in C’ (that is, calibrated to sit naturally in the key of C major), Höfele listened to Dupree solemnly intoning the opening chords of the Enescu Légende (from 2:07 on the enclosed BBC Sounds link). A competition piece written by the Romanian composer for the 1906 trumpet competition (concours) at the Paris Conservatoire, it begins in a deceptively languid mood, the trumpet low in its register, but soon begins to stir, Höfele hitting a faultless top ‘C’ around 5:50. Then the thoughtful mood returns, the trumpet using the mute at the very end.

From this soft dynamic comes the beginning of the next piece, Takemitsu’s Paths (8:39). The paths in question are very separate – soft, ruminative phrases using the mute, answered by much bolder and generally higher writing. The piece ascends to the relative heights, the piercing rasp of the mute-inflected phrase brings it towards earth, but it ultimately ends in mid-air contemplation.

Hindemith was an incredibly versatile composer, in his career writing sonatas for no fewer than 16 of the instruments of the orchestra. His Trumpet Sonata is one of the finest examples of this canon, and betrays its 1939 origins with frequent references to the actions of his ‘home’ country Germany. At this point the composer was an exile in Switzerland, and this work effectively shows both his horror and sorrow at the annex of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Turning to a trumpet ‘in B flat’, Höfele leads a brisk and busy start (from 16:56), though signs of the composer’s tongue-in-cheek writing are never far from the surface, peeking through at 17:50. Once reasserted, however, the main thematic material is impossible to shift.

The second movement (22:26) has a spirit of soft-hearted lazy play about it initially, with light hearted piano comments (ideally voiced by Dupree here) that are punctuated by the trumpet. From 29:19, the last movement, the piano distractedly accompanies the long trumpet phrases in lamentation, using as their source a chorale. Then the music builds to a resentful peak before fading away.

Very little is known of the French composer Augustin Savard – though he did win the coveted Prix de Rome with his oratorio La Vision de Saül in 1886. This Morceau de Concours is a competition piece for the trumpet that shows an impressive grasp of the instrument, not to mention drama in the slow introduction (35:20). By 39:06 the music has worked its way round to a genial theme for the faster section, after which trumpet and piano enjoy some light hearted exchanges.

Philippe Gaubert’s Cantabile et scherzetto, published six years later, enjoys a similar profile. Gaubert’s output is mostly directed towards the flute, but he too wrote a competition piece with a serious introduction (41:33) and a playful counterpart (44:20), packed with repeated triplets.

For the Solo de Concours by Belgian composer Théo Charlier (47:39) a slow introduction is not necessary, the piano firmly setting the scene before the trumpet’s arrival. An attractive slower theme (50:15) gives the other side of the story. A poignant aside from the muted trumpet follows before all the shackles are cast off in the final section (52:44) Just occasionally here Höfele felt as though he was overreaching with some of the more complicated phrases, but this – as with all the other pieces – was brilliantly handled.

The encore was a great choice, a Song Without Words by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (56:03-58:30), a solemn tune spiced with the odd ‘wrong’ note in the piano accompaniment, almost in the manner of Charles Ives.

Further listening

Simon Höfele and Frank Dupree have not yet recorded any of the repertoire performed in this concert. However the playlist below assembles the music in a number of different recordings, headed by Alison Balsom and Tom Poster in the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata:

Höfele does however have an extremely impressive disc of modern works in the bag, including music by HK Gruber, Takemitsu, Jolivet and Iain Hamilton:

Hindemith’s sonatas are intriguing pieces that combine flair and depth with concise writing structures. This disc, commonly linked by pianist Alexander Melnikov, is a winner: