Sneaker Wave

Sneaker Wave [BBC commission: world premiere]
Lady in the Dark (selections)
Euphonium Concerto [London premiere]
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70

Ruthie Henshall (singer)

David Childs (euphonium)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Grant Llewellyn

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 2 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The promenaders stayed away in droves for this one. I don’t quite understand why. It was a strange but pleasing programme that included a first performance and a couple of tunes from Broadway. Joby Talbot is even Classic FM’s first Composer-in-Residence, but there didn’t even seem to be support from that quarter.

In fact Talbot, a composer in his early thirties, has many more trophies than one might give him credit for. His music for the TV show “The League of Gentlemen” received the Royal Television Society award for best title music in 2000 and his percussion concerto has been championed by Evelyn Glennie.

Sneaker Wave is minimalist in character with repeated rising and falling fourteen-note phrases against a fifteen-note pulse, though it would be difficult to pick this up from the performance. The opening arpeggio motif, as played by the wind, demonstrated just how good this section of BBCNOW is, a standard shown throughout the concert. Sadly the strings’ first entry was also indicative of things to come, sounding weak and quite unconvincing. A ‘sneaker wave’ is a phenomenon four or five times bigger than normal ones and come “crashing spectacularly up the beach”: so did the organ, decimating any attempts that the already-hampered strings made to be heard.

Talbot’s formulaic orchestration made the piece no more than pleasant and it was unfortunate that Talbot found his work measured against Alun Hoddinott’s Euphonium concerto.

Altogether a superb piece, the concerto shows all the skill and experience of the composer now in his 75th year. As is often the case with Hoddinott, the traditional ‘movements’ are avoided; for the Euphonium Concerto a series of six sections are fused together interspersing slow and plaintive ideas with acrobatic dexterity.

Hoddinott was impressed by David Childs’s musicianship during the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest in 2000 and wrote the concerto for to push Childs’s technical virtuosity. Childs rose to the challenge. His technique is irreproachable, as is the musicianship that attracted Hoddinott to him four years ago. Childs cradles the euphonium, making it a part of him and through the instrument the music pours naturally and making the most complex patterns appear simple.

Kurt Weill is best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht in the 1920s and it is often forgotten that after his emigration to the United States his style became completely different. In the 1930s he absorbed the ‘Broadway Musical’ and until his death in 1950 he had a string of hits including “Lost in the Stars”, “One Touch of Venus” and “Lady in the Dark”.

“Lady in the Dark” dates from 1940 and was the first major collaboration that lyricist Ira Gershwin had since his brother’s death in 1937. Weill was one of the few Broadway composers to orchestrate his own shows and so his trademarks are never far away.

Sadly Ruthie Henshall’s performance was weedy and suffered from microphone problems so that the words were often inaudible. Her style was more of Julie Andrews, perhaps in recognition of the part that Gertrude Lawrence played in the original, but the songs need much more. Grant Llewellyn and BBCNOW provided the sparkle that was lacking from Henshall, the conductor clearly at home with the music.

Finally to Shostakovich’s jape at the Soviets: his Ninth Symphony. Written in the final weeks of the Second World War, it was expected that this work would be on the scale of Beethoven’s last symphony. The composer, perhaps foolishly, had remarked that he “would like to employ not only a full orchestra but a choir and soloists.” Beethoven’s 9th it certainly was not, and at less than half-an-hour and scored for a modest classical orchestra the critics were not at all generous.

BBCNOW was at its best, though the violin playing at the start was somewhat scrambled and with some dubious intonation. Raised brass created the usual problems of balance, though it allowed us to hear the superbly brassy writing that Shostakovich penned for the horns.

The second movement was taken too fast and lost much of its anguish and pathos; things like the not-together pizzicato at the end did nothing to improve matters. The remaining three movements faired much better with principal bassoon, Jaroslav Augustyniak, successfully combined yearning and grief with wit and humour at the cross-over point between the last two movements. The tongue-in-cheek mood was picked up by the rest of the band who chorused the symphony’s wild but comic conclusion.

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