BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Ryan Bancroft – Guy Johnston plays Saint-Saëns; Purcell’s Dido’s Lament; Elizabeth Ogonek’s Cloudline; Brahms’s Fourth Symphony

Dido and Aeneas – When I am laid in earth (Dido’s Lament) [arr. Leopold Stokowski]

Elizabeth Ogonek
Cloudline [BBC co-comission with Los Angeles Philharmonic: world premiere]

Cello Concerto No.1 in A-minor, Op.33

Symphony No.4 in E-minor, Op.98

Guy Johnston (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ryan Bancroft

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 2 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Due to “scheduling issues arising from the pandemic” both conductor Elim Chan and cellist Sol Gabetta were unable to travel here. In steps Guy Johnston – quite a performing world away from the sassy Argentinian he replaced – and the American Ryan Bancroft, BBCNOW’s newly appointed Principal Conductor.

Bancroft highlighted the lushness of Stokowski’s indulgent arrangement of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and particularly fine were the cello and violin solos in this four-minute opener.

In her programme note for her fifteen-minute Cloudline, Elizabeth Ogonek cites Walt Whitman, Georgia O’Keeffe, Killing Eve, and (!) Stokowski’s arrangement of the ‘Lament’ just heard, although the last reference, and another to the Royal Albert Hall’s appearance in the cited TV series are simply “oddly and hilariously serendipitous”. Now that that’s out of the way: the music itself is substantial. Shimmering string lines, taken from initial offerings from flute and bassoon, were propulsive for the narrative – “this lyrical hurricane of a piece seem[s] to express the bizarre texture of life during those trying, yet often tender, 15 months.” – and one might well imagine being pulled from cloud to cloud, on a mythical ‘Cloudline’, hopping in a mind’s fantasy world whilst locked-down. It is a kaleidoscopic piece, escapist stuff, beautifully orchestrated, and quite exciting. It received a fine first performance.

Johnston was a restrained presence for Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto, letting the notes account for themselves. He was at-one with the orchestra, with both matching each other, fashioning a dovetailed performance. Indeed, the sections within the single-span of the work were negotiated with aplomb by Johnston, and just about rightly spotlighted by Bancroft. A lilting delicacy to the strings in the central section was beautifully tasteful before the onset of stormy (in a French way) urgency, with quite thrilling projection from Johnston come the close.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony received a rather characterless outing. It came a little unstuck from the get-go, a bit of a scramble; some nicely crisp trumpets and timpani made it through. There was some stately majesty in the second movement – restrained, indeed –  and the Scherzo marked, determinedly, its presence. In the Finale, driven tempos, one section biting at the heels of the next, got to the conclusion, if not quite with the energy and passion asked for. The BBCNOW sounded in fine fettle.

Recorded for BBC Four broadcast on August 6th, and then available on iPlayer.

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