Omer Meir Wellber Impresses at his First Prom Appearance with the BBC Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 7Mozart, Ben-Haim, Schoenberg and Schumann: Yeol Eum Son (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.8.2019. (AS)

Yeol Eum Son (piano), BBC Philharmonic and Omer Meir Wellber (conductor)
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.15 in B flat K450
Ben-Haim – Symphony No.1
Schoenberg – Five Pieces for Orchestra Op.16
Schumann – Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.120

The 37-year-old Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber has until recently pursued a relatively low-level career since becoming assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2008. But that is all changing. On the strength of just one guest appearance with the BBC Philharmonic in March 2018 it was decided seven months later that he would become the next Principal Conductor of the orchestra in succession to Juanjo Mena, and he has just taken up this post. He has also been appointed Music Director at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo as from January and has just taken up the post of Principal Conductor at the Dresden Semperoper. So, taking into account guest appearances it remains to be seen how much time he will be able to devote to his Manchester commitment.

This was his first appearance with the BBC Philharmonic in London, and clearly he had a large part in the choice of works to be played. The concert would obviously have to have a soloist, and it seemed almost the case that this component of the programme should take the form of an introductory item to the main business of the evening. Hence the unusual choice of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.15 to begin proceedings. Then there would be a novelty in the shape of the Ben-Haim symphony, followed by a twentieth-century classic as part of this year’s homage to the 150th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s birth and finally a nineteenth-century symphony – not Beethoven or Brahms, but the slightly unusual choice of Schumann’s Fourth. It was a cleverly conceived sequence of works, and it augurs well for Wellber’s future programme planning.

The young Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son played the first movement of the Mozart concerto in a neat and tidy but somewhat faceless fashion. In the slow movement she introduced some tasteful decorations and there was a little more feeling in her playing, but the finale reverted to the status of a clean and clear exposition of the notes but not much else.

The music of the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) has lapsed into obscurity, and on the evidence of this performance of his First Symphony (1939-40) this is quite unjustified. The idiom of the work is tonal, twentieth-century in its harmonic twists and turns, but has its roots in late nineteenth-century romanticism.  Quite naturally it reflects the suffering of the Jewish people under Nazi persecution and the turbulence surrounding the British Mandate Palestine, where Ben-Haim spent the war years. But the general feeling is one of defiance rather than self-pity: the first movement has impressive strength and vigour, modified by a quieter, prayer-like central episode. The orchestration is lavish and colourful. The second of the three movements, subtitled ‘Psalm’, has an attractive, yearning quality, and it too has a quiet interlude, this time somewhat pastoral in mood. The last movement, whose mood is set by militarily drum beats, is energetic, dramatic and colourful, less inventive perhaps than its predecessors, and ending predictably in a rousing climax. Wellber’s conducting was powerful and heavy with emotion throughout. It would be good to hear the work again and indeed more of the composer’s output if it reaches this level.

If one could travel back in time musically one of the most fascinating events to attend would surely be the first performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, given by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at a Prom in 1912. To the players (and the audience) of the time it will have been music in a totally foreign and baffling language. Conducting a later performance, the demanding composer was impressed by Wood’s preparation of his orchestra, so maybe the premiere was a faithful representation of the score. Even 110 years after the original date of composition, it still has a quality of newness about it.

Five years ago, Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a finely played performance, but one that somehow became a little lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall. Wellber gave the work slightly more time and space, to its advantage, and the playing was excellent, but once again some detail failed to come through adequately. No doubt listeners to the live BBC Radio 3 relay were able to hear a better-balanced aural picture.

The 1851 revised version of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was played, and quite unusually Wellber observed the repeat not only in the first movement but in the last as well. It was a strikingly individual performance, not one you would necessarily wish to hear repeated on a commercial recording, but most stimulating as a one-off event. Both the introduction and the main section of the first movement were finely judged and paced, though there were subtle and intriguing rhythmic changes at various points. Perhaps the contributions of the four horns were a little too blatant at times. The slow movement had a nice lyrical feel to it, as it should of course, and was beautifully pointed. The Scherzo was very lively, quite forceful in nature, with the trio section lovingly moulded. The transition to the finale conveyed just the right kind of anticipatory feeling, and the following material, marked ‘lively’, fulfilled the instruction not only faithfully, but with an attractive lightness of step. Controversially but convincingly, Wellber then increased the tempo, and there were some unexpected emphases and agogic stresses. The end of the work was reached in a furiously fast climax.

Omer Meir Wellber is clearly a major conducting talent, and one looks forward to his future work with the impressive BBC  Philharmonic.

Alan Sanders

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