Prom 27: BBCSO/Klaus Mäkelä, with Yuja Wang

Jimmy López Bellido
Perú negro [UK premiere]

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43

Belshazzar’s Feast

Yuja Wang (piano)

Thomas Hampson (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Klaus Mäkelä

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 4 August, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Plenty of star power on offer here. Yuja Wang and Klaus Mäkelä are probably classical music’s hottest couple since Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna and the hall was full. Surprisingly perhaps the audience proved generally attentive. The Beijing-born pianist’s famously extrovert style extends beyond her choice of apparel, on this occasion an eccentric tangerine number. She has lately taken to playing all five Rachmaninov pieces for piano and orchestra at a single sitting (with two intervals at New York’s Carnegie Hall) but it is arguably the spikier invention of the composer’s ‘American’ period that suits her best.

There are other ways to play the Rhapsody. With the same orchestra at the Barbican last February Denis Kozhukhin and Hannu Lintu were straightforward, taut and clangorous where tonight’s performers preferred wit and intimacy. Neither team milked the potential mawkishness of the famous 18th Variation. The Royal Albert Hall is probably not the best venue in which to appreciate Yuja Wang’s exquisite range of sonority at low decibel levels but even from my seat there was ample evidence of her fabulous technique when the music called for virtuoso display. The suspicion that her heart is not always fully engaged in her prodigious feats of pianistic prestidigitation was borne out by the first of her encores, Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R. – latterly revealed as itself a virtuoso arrangement of Franz Behr’s Lachtäubchen (Scherzpolka) in F-major. This was mercilessly pulled about like a small dog on a long lead. Art Tatum’s take on Vincent Youmans’s Tea for Two on the other hand seemed quite magical, capricious only in a good way. 

Mäkelä, who elicited a subtle accompaniment in the Rachmaninov without always ceding the limelight to his pianist, had begun with what Henry Wood would have called a ‘novelty’. Sir Henry did not mean that term in a negative sense and we may or may not be hearing Perú negro again. This was the UK premiere of a work Jimmy López Bellido composed a decade ago, newly fashionable in its multi-cultural embrace and scope but offering more atmosphere than substance over nearly twenty minutes. The shapelessness palled by the end. There was a recurring fanfare but the ideas were less strong than the orchestral imagination.

The Finnish conductor had lately programmed Walton’s symphony / cantata / oratorio (the BBC seemed unsure) in Paris where his soloist was the septuagenarian Sir Willard White. Another veteran, Thomas Hampson, then starring in Paris Opera’s Nixon in China, made the switch to narration here, almost literally so given his resort to a kind of Sprechstimme. Gone are the immaculate finish, honeyed high-art gloss and occasional prissiness of the singer’s youth. Instead we have a more autumnal brand of vocalisation and for the most part the ear adjusted to the drier timbre. As with the BBC Symphony Chorus, the clarity of articulation per se was sensational. It is still an event when Walton is championed by conductors outside the obvious Anglo-American orbit and unless Vasily Petrenko takes up this score (he’s ‘British’ now anyhow) we are unlikely to hear a more compelling account any time soon. Yes, Mäkelä pressed forward a little precipitately so that at one point things almost came adrift. Yes, the music sometimes lacked the natural ‘swing’ that André Previn brought to this repertoire. I would have liked more of that elusive ‘real pianissimo’ too. Still, there was genuine chill at the forlorn opening, mighty exhilaration at the close and impressive fullness and clarity throughout. If the hall’s organ provided extra tummy-wobbling bass response the most striking transformation came with the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Mäkelä’s star has risen faster than that of any conductor of his generation. He is a lanky, endearing, elegant, super-alert presence on the podium (I had only previously encountered him as a cellist). After this display it was not difficult to see why he will shortly be taking on the directorship of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

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