BBC Proms reviews

Prom 27 review – Bellido, Rachmaninov and Walton in an emotional roller coaster

4 August 2023

Klaus Mäkelä, Yuja Wang, Thomas Hampson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus bring interest, excitement and rich emotion to the Royal Albert Hall.

Prom 27

BBCSO and Chorus & Klaus Mäkelä (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Your interest is piqued by the opening. The conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, is perfectly still, and from the back of the orchestra comes a repeated horn call – modified by different damping techniques. It’s taken up (once Mäkelä starts moving his arms) by trumpets and quiet strings. Then the excitement sets in with a fanfare from the brass and percussion, leading to a massive descending passage. Jimmy López Bellido’s 2013 Perú negro (receiving its UK première), is descriptive of the black musical heritage of his homeland, and summons street cries, bull kills, devils singing and everyday bustling life in a series of musical episodes that are full of texture and rhythmic drive. It’s a fabulous, glittering work whose sections often start quietly (plucked double basses and gong, or gently rocking strings and rustling woodwind) and gradually build into a riot of syncopated Latin-African brass and percussion (that includes washboards, cabasas and rattles). Mäkelä and the orchestra brought all of its infectious exhilaration to the stage in an account that was precisely calculated to deliver maximum impact. Now this is the work that should have opened the season.

Rachmaninov’s ‘almost piano concerto’ Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a popular concert item, not least for the swooping melody of its 18th variation; for conductor, pianist and orchestra, then, to find a unique interpretation is near impossible. Friday evening’s performance certainly didn’t contain any surprises or quirky takes on the piece, but it was, nonetheless a peerless account. Yuja Wang took the solo role and delivered it with her customary mix of impressive technique and understanding of the material. One often thinks of her ferocious approach to busy, intense passages of late-Romantic music – and there was plenty of this – but her engagement with the quieter variations also demonstrated consummate sensitivity to the composer’s requirements: the rapid, light touch she brought to the 2nd and 18th variations, for example, or the pianissimissimo intensity with which she opened the final variation. Throughout, her complete understanding of the requirements of Rachmaninov’s rubato techniques was obvious. It is unsurprising that she was recalled to the platform for two encores: a gracefully delivered account of Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R. and a witty, busily ornamented arrangement of Tea for Two.

“It’s a fabulous, glittering work…”

Prom 27

Yuja Wang (Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Just as brilliant at summoning the character and mood of each of Rachmaninov’s iterations of the well known earworm tune was the orchestra, under the expressive control (from the tiniest of gestures to broad, all-encompassing sweeps of arms and hair) of Mäkelä. We were given bubbling woodwind under bassoons on tiptoe, gossamer shimmers of violins, a focused Dies Irae from the brass – that was robust without being raucous – and an account of the 18th variation that was lush without being overblown.

Just as important as rhythmic energy in Walton’s 1931 cantata Belshazzar’s Feast is scrupulous attention to shifts in dynamic. His markings are very particular – often requiring rapid changes of volume on a single note, both in the orchestra and the chorus. The BBC Symphony Chorus for this performance was out in full strength, and, although their articulation of the text was flawless (you barely needed to look at the words), and their delineation of the rhythmic statements spot on, those special little attack/decay/crescendo moments that Walton is so pernickety about on the word ‘Babylon’ weren’t always quite on point. It was, nonetheless, a hugely enjoyable performance, whose changes of mood were analytically handled by the forces under Mäkelä’s control. Indeed, although some of the more rapid sections were taken at brisk tempi, everything functioned like a precision engineered machine to ensure the excitement dial was set to ‘hair-raising’.

Thomas Hampson’s interpretation of the baritone solo was a little more quirky than usual, and he seemed to be going for character more than accuracy. His shopping list of Babylon’s merchandise was full of dramatic force, and delivered in a quasi-parlando fashion, but his more intense, sung passages (the description of the writing on the wall, for example) seemed a little wayward in terms of pitch and vocal texture.

• Prom 27 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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Prom 27 review – Bellido, Rachmaninov and Walton in an emotional roller coaster