Proms 2011 – BBCNOW/Jac van Steen – Paganini Rhapsody/Hamelin, Cockaigne & Háry János, Michael Berkeley/David Goode

Cockaigne (In London Town) – Concert Overture, Op.40
Michael Berkeley
Organ Concerto [London premiere]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Háry János – Suite

David Goode (organ)

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 3 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jac van Steen. Photograph: Ross CohenQuite a lot of time in this lengthy Prom was taken up by platform changes – first between the large forces of the Elgar and the chamber ensemble of the organ concerto and, in the second half, to move the piano back into the orchestra (it is used in the Kodály) and replace it with the East-European folk instrument mostly associated with Hungary, the cimbalom. The opening piece found the orchestra tired and/or under-rehearsed. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (1901) is a portrait of the London he knew; the brass, strident throughout the evening, was unduly dominant, drowning out any subtlety of phrasing that the woodwind and strings might have played; maybe not, for this orchestra was on autopilot from the start!

The brass high in the Gallery at the start of Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto heralded a revitalised BBCNOW. The huge and open space of the Royal Albert Hall was ideal for the striking opening to this magnificent work. Surprisingly this was its first London performance; yey it dates from 1987, employs standard winds plus percussion and strings, so why it isn’t performed more often is an enigma. Berkeley’s Organ Concerto was commissioned by the International Congress of Organists and first performed in Ely Cathedral at the Cambridge Festival. It is in a single movement and divided into two halves – the first fast, the second slower. The composer says that “the liturgy of Easter pervades the Organ Concerto” and though it is not outwardly programmatic the essence of Easter (bringing light after darkness and the cleansing power of fire) encompasses the music’s spirit. David Goode, head of keyboards at Eton College, was well matched to the orchestra’s volume (the Royal Albert Hall organ has a tendency to dominate if not kept in check) though sometimes the choice of registration meant that the middle ranges were muddled amongst the orchestral parts and lost. Well-articulated and precise wind-playing together with sympathetic brass lifted this concerto to another plain. On occasion concentration was lost by the musicians (some wayward pizzicato) but otherwise this a focused performance.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photograph: Nina LargeRachmaninov’s creative muse was often at odds with his career as a performer. On leaving Russia in 1917 he found himself much in demand as a virtuoso pianist. In 1934, after relatively few compositions (but including the first version of Piano Concerto No.4), he wrote what would become one of his most popular pieces. Paganini Rhapsody is based upon the Italian composer’s 24th Caprice for solo violin, a stimulus for many composers, Brahms, Lutosławski, Liszt, Blacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of Rachmaninov’s 24 variations, XVIII (in which the composer turns the Theme on its head) has become one of his best-known melodies. Tempo disagreements between soloist and conductor at the start were soon sorted out, Jac van Steen accompanying Hamelin sympathetically. Sadly there were too many ragged edges (the witty ending was not together for instance), which gave this performance a feeling of under-preparedness.

Finally, the sparkling Suite that Kodály compiled from his ‘song-play’ (1925-26) about the Walter Mitty-like character Háry János. (It is the Hungarian way that the surname comes first; János equals John.) There is a Hungarian notion that says if someone sneezes during the telling of a story then it is confirmation that the tale (however preposterous) is true. Kodály opens the Suite with an orchestral ‘sneeze’. Sadly various members of the audience took this as their cue for coughs and wheezes of their own. It’s hard not to relish Kodály’s use of colour – from the bright percussion in ‘Viennese Music Clock’ to the brass, wind (including saxophone) and percussion in ‘The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’ that depicts Háry’s single-handed defeat of the whole French army. BBCNOW was enjoying itself. With few exceptions (the viola solo in the third movement seemed rushed) pacing and detailing were well-judged, as was balance, ensuring the cimbalom played by Ed Cervenka was heard throughout.

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