Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 36: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/David Atherton, Laurence Power – Puw, Walton and Rachmaninov @ Royal Albert Hall, London

9 August 2007

Guto Puw

Another evening based on the theme of ‘Proms firsts’ yielded an attractive programme – one work nearly eighty years hence, another from soon after the Second World War and a third where the ink had scarcely dried on the page.

This was the intriguingly titled …onyt agoraf y drws… (…Unless I Open The Door…), a new piece from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ resident composer Guto Puw, written with the Albert Hall in mind.

The piece is a vividly pictorial account of the closing section of the Branwen tale from the Mabinogion, where Bendigeidfran and his men feast without the passing of time – that is, until they decide to open the third door of their banqueting hall. Puw’s musical signposts were visual, too, in the form of clarinet, violin and trumpet placed around the hall, utilising its sonic potential.

Some intriguing sound effects followed the ceremonial brass fanfare, with low piano threats accompanied by a shaker and double basses tapping their bows, the music tangibly in horror film territory.

A rush of sound heralded the opening of the fateful third door, and huge orchestral rush swept the piece off its feet, providing an impressive climax to a work that while occasionally derivative was imaginative and theatrical.

From a new Proms commission to a work that has an illustrious performance history at the festival – Walton’s Viola Concerto, premiered by composer/violist Paul Hindemith and taken up by William Primrose and its initial dedicatee Lionel Tertis. Soloist Laurence Power has already recorded the 1929 version for Hyperion, but tonight turned to the far more frequently heard revision of 1961.

Power and conductor David Atherton brought forward the lyrical warmth of the opening statements, yet were careful not to underplay the subtle yet disquieting clash of thirds that brings unexpected tension at the end of both first and third movements. The second movement scurried forward with Power’s technique impeccable, while a robust climactic section of the finale led to an exquisitely bittersweet end, helped by both clarinets in their lower registers.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances gave the programme impetus and bite for the second half, and while Atherton started slowly this was in strict adherence to the ‘non allegro’ tempo marking. Tuttis were full bodied, the rhythms lithe and snappy, with a gorgeously plaintive alto saxophone solo from John Cooper in the first dance, and the impressively wrought violin solo from leader Lesley Hatfield in the second.

Atherton clearly has a great affection for this wonderful music, dancing about on the podium as the dynamic third dance took hold, and the summation at the end was thoroughly convincing. The hall may have only been half full, but a message to those who stayed away – you missed a treat.

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