What better choice of music to showcase the talents of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (in its ninetieth year) in a programme curated by its Composer-in-Association Huw Watkins. Tippett and Britten have been strong influences on Watkins’s compositional style and were revealed here to brilliant effect. Michael Tippett’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles (1948), first-conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, is timely in a year when its dedicatee celebrates three-score-years-and-ten (as well as twenty-five as patron to BBCNOW) and Britten’s Piano Concerto, with shades of Ravel, Prokofiev and (to my mind) Bartók was first-written eighty years ago.
Britten’s Piano Concerto doesn’t get that many outings, or belong to many pianists’ repertoire, so it was particularly impressive to see Huw Watkins play without a score. And what terrific conviction there was here, in technical assurance and boldness of execution – fearlessly scything through thickets of notes in the opening ‘Toccata’ (one of its markings being con bravura) with admirable self-control so that the vaulting octaves were cleanly projected within Britten’s conspicuous horn-writing. The cadenza was dispatched with dazzling ease and rounded off by glowing strings and delicate woodwinds. Exotic scales familiar perhaps to Bartók coloured the ‘Waltz’ (eloquently set in motion by Rebecca Jones’s wistful viola); its parody reminiscent of Ravel. The ‘Impromptu’ (replacing the original ‘Recitative and Aria’) may, for some, have too many reminders of Prokofiev but, comparisons aside, this was a beautifully measured reading, Watkins calibrating each chord at the outset with a master-craftsman’s precision, and Martyn Brabbins building the movement’s emotional trajectory with compelling force, and with luminous strings in the concluding bars. By the end of the closing ‘March’ (more satire than parody) Britten’s skill as an orchestrator was abundantly clear – more so than his musical identity. That said, there was no doubt about the level of commitment and polish Brabbins secured during this barnstorming performance.
Earlier, the merits of the Tippett needed little if any persuasion – so finely does the composer blend his contrapuntal style within a work fit for public duty. Brabbins brought out the horns’ pealing in the ‘Intrada’ and plenty of warm string tone for Crimond. Sasha Calin’s mellifluous oboe charmed in the ‘Berceuse’ as did buoyant phrasing in ‘Procession and Dance’. A stately Angelus ad virginem in ‘Carol’ was topped by an invigorating ‘Finale’.
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is not the first of its kind (Hindemith’s precedes it by twenty years, and Bartók’s fellow-Hungarian Kodály had also composed one). This account – brimming with intensity and superbly executed solos – was meticulously prepared, with character, detail and sweep. Well-judged tempo-changes enabled the opening movement to flow seamlessly, brass majestic, woodwind scintillating (especially eerie flutes) and strings at times ferocious – this was playing with a passion. The eventful ‘Game of the Couples’ was pure joy, nothing out of place. Intensity darkened for the ‘Elegy’ – brooding and conjuring a witch’s coven, its dramas finding resolution in the perfectly-balanced closing piccolo and timpani. Trim woodwind and parping trombones coloured a cleanly-articulated ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ and the ‘Finale’ was as uplifting as any I’ve heard – momentum sustained. Great programme, thrilling playing and distinguished conducting.
- Recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Monday February 19 at 7.30 p.m. (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- Brabbins records Tippett 1 & 2