Prom 16:Hugh Wood’s Piano Concerto and an Evocative La Mer

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 16: Elgar, Hugh Wood, Ravel, and Debussy: Joanna MacGregor (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7.2012 (CG)

Elgar:In the South (Alassio) Op. 50 (1903-4)
Hugh Wood: Piano Concerto, Op. 32 (1989-91)
Ravel:Une Barque sur ’océan (1904-5, orch 1906)
Debussy, orch Henry Wood: La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, 0rch, 1919)
Debussy: La Mer (1903-1905)

Hugh Wood is now in his eightieth year, and was present to hear his former pupil Joanna MacGregor play his Piano Concert tonight, and not for the first time – he originally wrote it for her and the 1991 Proms season. Cast in the traditional three movements, it is anything but traditional in style, and is one of Wood’s most personal and original works. It contains elements of jazz, has Latin American rhythms, frequent episodes of dissonant harmony, and it has an emotional flavour somewhat reminiscent of the late Viennese school but which is nevertheless Wood’s own. MacGregor’s wide-ranging musical interests are thus expressed alongside those of the composer, who has single-mindedly trodden his very own musical path and seldom been afraid to include all manner of diverse references and influences in his multi-faceted music. The Proms have justly been relatively kind to Wood: it was his Scenes from Comus which attracted a good deal of attention when first performed in 1965, and since then his Cello Concerto has been programmed (three times) as well as his Symphony, and Variations for Orchestra.

The Piano Concerto is a rich and fascinating work with a predominantly energetic and dissonant first movement, a reflective slow movement, and a largely playful and rhythmically alive finale. The composer employs serial techniques in the first movement in a dramatic and often abrasive way. Its sonata form is derived from classical models, and interplay between orchestra and soloist is a vital feature, with the orchestra contributing as strongly as the soloist.

Most immediately beguiling is the central movement in which the tune “Sweet Lorraine” receives several variations reminding us of late-night jazz, but never sounding exactly like it. Think Bartok’s nocturnal music, and you’re some of the way there, but this is Wood, through and through. I enjoyed this immensely, and the last movement too, with its good-natured counterpoint and sprightly rhythms. MacGregor was a lively and sympathetic soloist, and seemed to be completely in tune with Wigglesworth and the splendid National Orchestra of Wales; it was good to see the composer on the platform afterwards receiving the very warm applause.

The rest of the programme was a grand cocktail of English and French sea or seaside music. Elgar’s In the South, composed at great speed while Elgar stayed in Italy to avoid the miseries of the English winter, got the concert off to a bright start, receiving an enthusiastic performance, with the influence of Richard Strauss abundantly clear; how lovely the themes are, how engaging the counterpoint is, and how brilliantly the piece is orchestrated! This is Elgar at his sunniest and most confident – just the thing after a baking hot day in a London suffused with Olympic fever.

Then, after the interval, Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’océan reminded us that Ravel was human after all and could occasionally compose pieces lacking the absolute perfection achieved in his main output. Yes, it’s effective enough in its portrayal of a sailing ship tossing on the waves, and it offers a glimpse of what was to come with its delightful touches of instrumental colour, but it’s no more than a pleasing miniature. It is the third of his piano pieces, Miroirs, and the orchestrated version played tonight was withdrawn by Ravel after its first unsuccessful performance, never to be performed again until after his death. Ravel was smarting from his failure to win the coveted Prix de Rome, andfrom being compared unfavourably to his senior compatriot, Claude Debussy. Conductor and orchestra did their best with the piece tonight but perhaps Ravel was wise to withdraw it after all…

But there was far worse to come. Sir Henry Wood’s orchestration of La Cathédrale Engloutie is pretty awful! There’s a special skill involved in orchestrating Debussy’s piano music, with its exquisite pianistic colours and extensive use of the sustaining pedal, and on the strength of this, Sir Henry didn’t have it. It is grossly over-orchestrated – complete with organ pedal notes, trombones, tuba, and percussion – the works! Frankly, it’s almost laughable. This performance was not helped by Wigglesworth’s rather fast tempi, but the main problem was Sir Henry’s use of everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink to express what is, in its original form, primarily a touchingly suggestive and on the whole rather delicate piece.

Sanity was restored with La Mer, Debussy’s definitive symphonic portrait of the sea in all its moods. This was very well done! I don’t mean that Wigglesworth and his orchestra offered any amazing revelations here, but that they simply gave us a thoroughly idiomatic, honest, and colourful performance which absolutely delighted this listener. I would not dispute one single tempo – there was pace and reflection in equal measure. And I would heap praise, especially, on the woodwind soloists, who according to the programme were Juliette Bausor (flute), David Cowley (oboe), Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer (Cor Anglais), Robert Plane (clarinet), and Juroslaw Augustyniak (bassoon). There was some really lovely French horn playing from Neil Shewan too, and the strings sounded deliciously French.

The conductor was to have been Thierry Fischer, but due to illness Ryan Wigglesworth took over at short notice. He is to be congratulated in directing a far from easy programme with considerable skill and panache. Still in his thirties, and with a growing reputation both as conductor and composer, his is certainly a talent to be nurtured.

Christopher Gunning