The Pines of Rome

Twill By Twilight
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
The Pines of Rome

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano)

Truls Mørk (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 6 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s association with Tadaaki Otaka, its Conductor Laureate, goes back nearly twenty years. Prom 29 proved an experience to cherish.

Despite its eclectically various composers, the concert was imbued with a spirit of rapt, shared music-making. At first, more prosaically, I thought Otaka had deliberately used Takemitsu to set a stylistic tone. “Subtle variations in pastel-like colours express the moment just after sunset when twilight turns towards darkness,” wrote Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight is a contemplation commemorating Morton Feldman. The programme note declares that a highlight of the two men’s relationship was an “extreme sensitivity to the intensity inherent in every musical phrase, even every note”. (This is I may add a scrupulous feature of Otaka’s conducting.)

Otaka’s gentle command of this piece was charmed. The tempo moves from slow to slower – and for the most part between p and pp, with the occasional mf. The scoring’s precise, sparing use of a large orchestra recalls Ravel and Mahler. Equally important is the music’s pulse, that of a sleeping cat, imperceptible yet present, Debussy-like, instantly leaping into alertness. Otaka – open to an unseen, unheard presence – understands this transcendently.

To follow the Takemitsu, conductor, orchestra and Truls Mørk met as one in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, mostly written during Dvořák’s third and final season as director of the National Conservatory in New York. His focus is joy at the prospect of returning to his native Bohemia coupled with distress over the illness and then death of a former beloved, his sister-in-law.

Generously, Otaka moderated the brash rumbustiousness of the first movement’s tutti, which allowed Mørk to open with a keen but pensive vigour and not obliged to produce the romantically impassioned string-breaking resonance usually demanded of this work. Even more so, the slow movement was a grave and inner-ecstatic rumination on the need to bid farewell to each thing that exists. “Look thy last on all things lovely / Every hour” (Walter de la Mare) – I shall not forget the rapt partnership of Mørk and Otaka here, presenting still, quiet moments as a spiritual core to a work more usually acclaimed for its extraversion. Otaka and the orchestra took over the last movement’s pounding exuberance brilliantly –punctiliously leaving space for the cello and woodwinds’ quietly sensitive and dolorous plaint.

The Ravel shimmered; its exquisite sounds seemed to have grown from the music that preceded it. Katarina Karnéus caught the spirit of Ravel’s music and Tristan Klingsor’s words effortlessly. Her voice – a graceful instrument – sailed above the orchestra in arresting vocal lines. This pure, distilled sound – enraptured, enchanting – was far more necessary to the performance than the words to be sung, though she sang those words perceptive to their import and with refined nuance.

The Pines of Rome was performed with flair. I thought I had strayed into an unfamiliar, festive part of Petrushka – gladly – then Otaka and the orchestra laid a gentle hand: Hush! Now the catacomb! Hear the nature of stillness! Of depth! Hear the soft tremors of eternity! Now, hear life outside, the quiver of pine trees in the night, the nightingale. Finally, hear the golden tramping of the Roman Army returning home down the Appian Way. Hear the jubilation!

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 13 August at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content