An oddly conceived and structured concert. On paper the inclusion of the Borodin looked as lame as any pre-announced encore, but the programming of Takemitsu and Rachmaninov promised something special given their prominence during Tadaaki Otaka’s thirty-year relationship with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Might Huw Watkins’s new piece prove more durable than the typical ten-minute Proms pièce d’occasion?
We began with Takemitsu, Twill by Twilight, an elegy for Morton Feldman, hence restrained and not obviously suited to the opening slot. In a Hall about two-thirds full, those standing responded to the challenge with rapt attention. Alas certain occupants of the stalls took longer to settle, rustling cellophane and dropping bottles. Takemitsu’s carefully crafted score came across well even so, moving us gently forward through iridescent eddies of sound, like Debussy or Ravel on mescaline. Here it became the second Takemitsu orchestral score to have secured more than one outing at the Proms: the same team performed it in 2004.
Huw Watkins’s commission for chorus and orchestra was up next. The Moon, while characteristically well-made and eminently recognisable as Western art music, proved worryingly mid-Atlantic in tone. Constrained rather than inspired by the dodgiest of Proms ‘themes’, the 1969 Apollo Moon Landing and by implication that make-believe directive “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, Watkins sought to change the focus, “to capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth.” The piece is “also somehow about looking back at us here on Earth from above.” A single movement lasting some twenty minutes, it embraces well-chosen poetry by Shelley, Larkin and Walt Whitman yet never really moves or challenges. Paul Griffiths’s tactful programme note referred to “the luminous, essentially consonant harmony that will prevail throughout the piece” and indeed that Jonathan Dove-ish tendency was established rather beautifully at the outset. I have no problem with the kind of ‘simple’ word-setting that allows texts to be heard, nor did I object to the obvious signposting function of the orchestral breaks. Sadly, an excess of generic, John Adams-style uplift risked obscuring the composer’s own voice.
Following the interval we returned to music with a Henry Wood connection, even if choral items seldom featured in the early days of these concerts. Wood gave the UK premiere of The Bells elsewhere, in Liverpool in 1921. It was not until André Previn’s Rachmaninov Centenary Concert of 1973 that the work was scheduled at the Proms, albeit in an English-language version with home-grown singers. Otaka had a bigger choir and soloists of mixed antecedents claiming Welsh, Russian and Ukrainian nationality. The language was Russian. It was not all gain however. The performance had its moments, the argument unfolding patiently and logically with some glittery detailing if less in the way of forward thrust. Rachmaninov’s use of stopped horn made for a rather pinched effect. The big-boned third movement evoking Poe’s ‘Loud Alarum Bells’ was not quite Presto but the weight of sound did not disappoint, whereas the tempo of the first movement was sluggish enough to confuse the tenor. The attractive, soft-grained timbre of Iurii Samoilov made its mark in the final slow lament of ‘Mournful Iron Bells’. Still, a larger, gloomier voice better suits the text. Recipient of a Critics’ Circle Award for emerging talent in 2017, Natalya Romaniw demonstrated her enormous potential, adding new colours to what has always been a big, confident instrument, never overlooking the darker undercurrents of Rachmaninov’s ‘Mellow Wedding Bells’. There was the usual desultory clapping between movements.
The inclusion of the Borodin was supported by the fact that Wood had given the, presumably, orchestral ‘Polovtsian Dances’ a UK premiere in 1897, three years before he brought it to the Proms. Nowadays, although Prince Igor is sampled less frequently, the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ often have their wow factor enhanced by the reinstatement of a choral element. On this occasion the combined choirs sang lustily, Borodin’s music bringing the house down as surely as it did when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes made its first visits to London. Perhaps that is justification enough.