“No matter what you do, someone, somewhere will complain” – so runs the old adage, and whilst no single Proms season can please everyone, there is no doubt in my mind that – some outstanding individual concerts apart – there would appear to be little in the way of overall coherence in the planning of the last few Proms seasons, or of this one in particular.
One of the reasons is the now annual influx of overseas orchestras. Of all the ensembles taking part this season, 50-percent come from abroad. When the BBC can field five symphony orchestras, one wonders how or why it is considered necessary – or even a ‘good thing’ – to import so many foreign orchestras (not all of whom, without putting too fine a point on it, in the top flight), for the problem is that any plan has to go out of the window when accommodating this or that conductor who desperately wants such and such a soloist to play a particular concerto, whilst he simply has to include that particular work in the concert.
That’s the impression, anyway, especially as it’s the BBC that foots the bill, and whilst no-one in their right mind would regard the Ulster Orchestra as ‘foreign’, this programme bore all the hallmarks of not having been coherently planned.
In practical concert-planning terms, to have three works where timpani are required in only one of them; where the opening work requires a lorry-load of percussion, to be followed by a classical concerto, which requires an orchestra of seemingly around one-third of the instrumental strength asked for in the first and last works, and to end with music that requires full scoring (without percussion, only timpani) – especially if the additional instruments have been brought from Northern Ireland for this one afternoon – well, you get the idea.
Yet – such was the excellence of the playing, and the penetration and insight of Rafael Payare, that one could almost forgive the nonsense programming for the quality of the result.
The opening Wild Flow is a five-movement suite. Piers Hellawell is a naturally gifted composer, whose music deserves greater exposure than it gets. Wild Flow certainly held the attention – not least because the performance was so good.
Forgoing my habit of reading the programme-note before hearing the work (thanks to public transport, I arrived with about five minutes to spare), I found myself gripped by the quality of Hellawell’s orchestration, although as the work progressed I felt that the opening movement was probably written last: it lacked the developmental aspects of its successors, and overall, the individual movements do not possess the singular creative character one would have hoped for. But there is much to admire here.
The Armenian Narek Hakhnazaryan then played Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto (not as good as its D-major companion). Much of this account was admirable, in terms of tempos, balance, phrasing and musicianship – but was ruined by Hakhnazaryan’s own cadenzas, which are in the worst possible taste. Double-stopping, pizzicatos, soaring to the instrument’s highest register – such ridiculous anachronisms have no place in concertos from the 1760s; when one considers the cadenzas Benjamin Britten wrote for Rostropovich (for their 1964 recording), Hakhnazaryan’s efforts were deplorable. His encore, quite familiar now from him, was Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio.
The Prom ended with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in many ways a difficult work to bring off satisfactorily (the composer thought so, for he made a cut of 100 bars in the Finale when he conducted the work in Hamburg – a cut that used to be often observed), but Payare’s reading (conducting from memory) revealed beyond any doubt that he not only believes in this work, but also has the penetrating musicianship to prove the composer wrong: this was outstandingly well interpreted and very well played indeed. The Ulster Orchestra could show some others, who have travelled very much further to get to London, the way home.