There is some debate about the inclusion of Radio-6-Music-type events in the Proms programme, but they are a welcome opportunity to expand one’s musical horizons, and Monday afternoon’s Prom was certainly extremely popular.
Joseph Tawadros is not only a dexterous and talented performer on the oud, but he is a witty and engaging entertainer, making much of the unusual fusion of his Egyptian and Australian heritage; his deliciously tongue-in-cheek short renderings of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule! Britannia using Arabic quarter-tone scales aptly demonstrated the musical idiom but gave a briefly ironic nod to the concert series’ more fusty reputation.
Most of the works were by Tawadros himself, developed through his eclectic improvisational style, and pulling in stringed-instrument techniques from many cultures – African kora, Japanese koto, slide-guitar and bluegrass-banjo-picking.
In many of the pieces, the Arabic modal maqamat scales – full of a mourning intensity – were evident: the limpid Heal, for example, or the opening Taqasim Kord whose tremolo variations around a note reminded us of the debt that so much Andalusian guitar music owes to its North-African roots. Constellation’s repeated sliding techniques and picked higher notes brought to mind a rock-god or two. The use of an almost baroque ground bass in Permission to Evaporate (a piece dedicated to Tawadros’ parents) was a surprising inclusion, and its development into a complex set of plucked, repeated phrases (with occasional twists of harmony that might be thought of as false relations) added further to its feeling of being by a latter-day Purcell. Clothes (from his album The Prophet – pieces inspired by the poetry of Khalil Gibran) was a gentle, melancholy number that resolved into a fetching little idée fixe melody whose quarter-tone intervals gave it an extra degree of plaintiveness.
It was not all lush, slow music, though. Tawadros has a breathtaking way with ferociously busy passages – involving fingers of both hands in rapid changes of notes and dizzying alternately plucked and strummed internal rhythms. Gare de l’Est was full of the jazzy riffs of an energetic blues; the furious strumming of complex cluster chords in Forbidden Fruit brought out the oud’s top harmonics in a challenging jangle of notes. Work began as anything but its title: spaced out riffs portrayed a feeling of languor in a sunny courtyard with a plashing fountain; these, however, were soon disturbed by an insistent plucked motif that became increasingly frenetic strummed percussive chords, and a few seconds of relentless ostinato (with the left hand plucking a string on the frets during a chord), to end in an exhausted slide. For an encore, Tawadros gave us a delightful mix of Cairo and Kentucky – banjo-picking with an Arabic accent – in Bluegrass Necriz.
Each of the Cadogan Hall Proms contains a commission from a female composer, and Monday’s featured Jessica Wells’ Rhapsody for solo oud. It was written for Tawadros’ unique skill-set, and is a tour de force of all of the techniques he employs: opening with a typical maqam passage, it soon developed into a series of busy riffs that incorporated plucking and strumming. Somewhere in there was a rumba motif that brought to mind the rhythmic bass of Mission Impossible. The work proved, however, in the hands of its dedicatee, not only to be mission very possible but mission very enjoyable.