United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Elgar, Takemitsu: Steven Isserlis (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaki Otaka (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.12.2017. (PCG)
Takemitsu – Twill by Twilight
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27
This concert was the first of a pair celebrating the seventieth birthday of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s conductor laureate Tadaki Otaka. He had been the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1987 to 1995, and here he revisited music with which he had been closely associated during those years. It was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, as indeed is Otaka’s all-Elgar concert next Monday afternoon, and deservedly so: the performance caught the orchestra in an excoriating display at the peak of its abilities.
Otaka had recorded the complete Rachmaninov symphonies during his period as principal conductor of the orchestra. This performance of the composer’s longest essay in the symphonic medium was everything that had been captured in that excellent recording, and more. We were given the symphony at its full heavenly length, with none of the unauthorised and disfiguring cuts that had already crept into performances during the composer’s own lifetime; and the rendition of the gloriously lyrical slow movement scaled the heights. The orchestra’s string players, bolstered by the addition of an extra desk in each of their sections, produced a richness of tone and emotion that could safely challenge any competition in the world. From the middle of the movement onwards, the beautifully poised and inflected clarinet solo from Robert Plane was echoed and shadowed in the most exquisite manner imaginable by the flute of Matthew Featherstone. The horn section covered themselves in glory during their declamation of the principal theme in the preceding scherzo, and the outer movements were similarly magnificent in their sense of drama and purpose. The symphony may be long, but in a performance like this one was left wondering why on earth anyone would wish to subject it to abridgement. The audience cheered the conductor and orchestra to the rafters, and rightly so. This was one of those performances that bristled with life and communication, and one’s only regret was the number of empty seats scattered around the hall. Those listening to the live broadcast relay at home will have missed the electric atmosphere that was generated, but they may well have noticed the rapt attention of the audience who hardly dared to cough and interrupt the quieter passages of the music.
A similar sense of communication was apparent also in Steven Isserlis’s intense performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto. The soloist made no attempt to challenge the volume of the orchestra in Elgar’s often forceful scoring (where Otaka gave the composer’s use of heavy brass full rein) but he nevertheless encompassed the full dynamic range of the cello sound. The quieter passages were reduced to a mere trickle of sound which may have sounded insubstantial in the further reaches of the hall, but which were riveting at the relatively close quarters of my seat in the stalls some ten rows back. At the same time, Isserlis avoided the pitfalls, particularly in the slow passages of reflection towards the end of the slow movement, where affection for the music can bring a feeling that the onward progress becomes becalmed. This was a performance where the emotional engagement of a du Pré was subsumed into something more inwardly felt, less immediately gripping perhaps, but yielding rewards of a different and perhaps even more poignantly elegiac nature. This mood was continued into Isserlis’s solo encore, the haunting Song of the Birds, only marred by the failure of the soloist to announce to the audience what he was actually playing (there was considerable mystification apparent from the comments I heard at the interval). In fact this was not the well-known version by Pablo Casals, but a newer arrangement by Sally Beamish, who really deserved to be acknowledged for her work.
The two principal items on the programme were preceded by Takemitsu’s Twill by Twilight (’twill’ here refers to woven textiles). The composer wrote it in 1988 (eight years before his death) in memory of his friend Morton Feldman who had died the previous year. Not that the score had much in common with Feldman’s austere version of minimalism: it shows instead (as Peter Burt suggests in his book on the composer’s music) more affinity with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, with passages that indeed came near to sheer imitation of that beautiful score. The Ravellian textures were contrasted with other sections which came closer to Takemitsu’s more reflective style, with a surprisingly prominent part for the piano in conjunction with celesta and a pair of harps. Tadaki Otaka has a long-standing affinity with the music of Takemitsu. He obtained a sympathetic performance from the orchestra, although the high woodwind passages sounded a disturbingly raucous note in their more reflective surroundings.
Otaka also continued his mission to promote Japanese music with an encore which followed the exhausting Rachmaninov symphony, a sort of concerto grosso for string orchestra. It was given a boisterous performance but did not sound at all Japanese, rather more a work in the neo-classical style with touches with suggested Hindemith or Bartók. But if Otaka was seeking to proselytise the work of the composer, he hardly helped his cause by failing to tell the audience what it was they were listening to. In fact what we heard was the first movement of the Triptyche for string orchestra by Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-1989). I had never previously heard any music by this composer beyond his 1950 Music for symphony orchestra included in a Naxos collection some years ago, and I would hazard a guess that hardly anyone in the hall would have known what it was they were hearing here. The Triptyche, written three years later, never appears to have been commercially recorded (there are some performances to be found on YouTube) and perhaps might repay further investigation; but it can hardly begin to achieve even that if performances such as this (with orchestral leader Lesley Hatfield as involved here as she was in her isolated solo phrases in the Rachmaninov) remain shrouded in anonymity.
But this was a relatively minor cavil in the context of such a rewarding concert as this. There were times during the performance when I felt myself both lucky and privileged to be able to experience such involving and impassioned music-making, and recognised how easy it can become to take such an experience for granted. Those who may feel suspicious of my enthusiasm can share some of that same experience via the relay on the BBC iPlayer. Although they may miss the sheer electricity of the shared live encounter, they can hardly fail to appreciate the opportunity to hear one of the best of British orchestras at the absolute peak of their form.
Paul Corfield Godfrey