Father and Son: Walter Weller conducts an André Christen work with BBCNOW

Christen, Prokofiev, Dvořák: John Lill (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Walter Weller (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 7 .5.2011 (NHR)

André Christen, As cataracas do Iguaçu
Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto no. 3
Antonin Dvořák, Symphony no. 7

It’s unusual for a concert programme to begin with a work by the son of the conductor, but André Christen’s tone-poem inspired by a South American waterfall easily justified its inclusion. A hushed opening suddenly gave way to pounding timpani, blaring brass and bewildering figurations for the cello and bass players which must have really warmed their fingers up. The piece certainly caught the rainforest atmosphere and the sheer relentlessness of the waterfall spectacle, sweeping everything into its surging path: not much room for subtlety, but plenty of power.

Walter Weller is one of the most quietly, even modestly reliable guest-conductors around, but this doesn’t mean he leads his orchestras into merely safe or unadventurous performances. I felt the same with the Prokofiev concerto, where the orchestra is fully engaged throughout, its virtuosity having to match the pianist’s at every turn. John Lill, who on account of his sheer professionalism might also risk being described as ‘reliable’, was as you would expect effortlessly able to answer all this piece’s extreme technical and intellectual demands, equally at home with lyricism and percussive display. A great deal is going on in this music, and Lill and Weller laid it before us with exemplary clarity – especially the parody of a courtly dance that sets the second movement going, until it dissolves into a characteristically Prokofievan sardonic and insinuating menace, perfectly captured by the performers. Is Prokofievan an acceptable adjective? There is something in this work, and in many of his other works, which I struggle to close my ears to: a sense that perhaps he was never quite able to detach his creations from his fascination with his own power to create them.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, with its searching, brooding, fragmented opening movement, and the slightly exasperated bounce of its waltzing scherzo, is one of those works which always seems on the point of quoting something else – Siegfried’s Funeral March, the Egmont overture, Brahms’ Third – letting these half-echoes trail its more distinctive and individual developments. For all the wealth of ideas and the affirmations of Czech nationalism, it’s hard not to feel that Dvořák, the most joyful of composers, had to curb something in himself in order to sustain this venture into darker registers. He can’t hold radiance off for ever, though, and it arrives in the finale, with the brilliant helter-skelter of woodwinds and the sonorous closing major-key brass chords. The NOW’s was a finely judged and absorbing performance, enthusiastically received.

Neil Reeve