United Kingdom Jazzical tales: Huw Watkins (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / David Danzmayr (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 23.1.2020. (PCG)
Tchaikovsky / Duke Ellington / Billy Strayhorn / Jeff Tyzik – The Nutcracker Suite for orchestra
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G
Prokofiev – Cinderella: selections
Back in December 2015, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales presented a concert of jazz-influenced classical music. That included what was then identified as the version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutracker Suite made by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn for a Christmas album in 1960. The programme had promised us nine movements, but we heard only five, a procedure. In my review, I attributed it to lack of time in a fairly long programme. It now appears that I may have been misled, since here we were presented again with just five movements. They were now described as a re-working of the Ellington/Strayhorn score for full orchestra by Jeff Tyzik, made in 1998 and deliberately omitting the other four items from the original LP. In 2015, I described the reworking of the Tchaikovsky ballet score as not ‘much more than a commercially driven venture’, although I also noted that my jazz-loving companion referred to it as ‘a marvellous example of big band jazz’. Whether it was that we were hearing a different edition of the music, or that the orchestra were less exhausted at the beginning of the evening rather than the end, both of us thought the performance a definite improvement on what we had heard in 2015. Once again the featured soloists (now David Miller on saxophone, Nick Cox on clarinet, Simon Gardner on trumpet) appeared to enjoy themselves enormously, and David Danzmayr’s conducting style reflected that of a dance band leader. But I remained perturbed by the peculiarly obtuse replacement of Tchaikovsky’s variety of percussion instruments by a single drum kit, no matter how well and imaginatively rendered by the BBC NOW timpanist Steve Barnard, when so many ear-catching alternatives would have been available. And similarly misguided, in a movement entitled Toot toot tootie toot based on Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the reed pipes, was the substitution of strings for Tchaikovsky’s original trio of flutes, which would have appeared particularly appropriate for the newly titled movement.
Just as with Tchaikovsky and Ellington, it is always interesting to hear one composer interpret the work of another. Huw Watkins as the BBC NOW’s Composer-in-Association assumed his other mantle as a performing artist, playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with all the dexterity and aplomb at his command. It has to be observed, however, that this score has remarkably little scope for individual interpretation. Although Watkins peppered the first movement in particular with some nicely judged rubato and delivered the Satie-like slow movement with rapt attention, there is confined room for manoeuvre in the sparkling finale. Nor was the liaison with the orchestra, especially in the jazzy passages near the opening, quite as well judged as it might have been. And the composer-pianist’s sustained pianissimo trill at the end of the ecstatic conclusion of the slow movement was not ideally delicate and even, as it might perhaps have been with a pianist specialising in Ravel scores.
In the first half of the programme we had heard both a ballet score treated as jazz and a piano concerto with jazz influences; in the second half we reverted to classical Russian ballet without any significant jazz connections at all. Prokofiev, as was his normal practice with his full-length ballet scores, extracted a number of suites for orchestral performance which made no attempt to conform to the running order in staged performances. As is also normal practice, conductors tend to override his decisions and present Cinderella no less than Romeo and Juliet in conflations which more closely reflect the development of the drama. That presented here by David Danzmayr was in a similar mould, although it did unexpectedly include the Amoroso final apotheosis (sometimes cut in the theatre) which brought the suite to an unexpectedly more subdued ending after so much vivacious excitement. But all the main highlights of the score were here, including a marvellously stentorian Midnight with the strident woodblocks and tubular bells sounding out vociferously over the full orchestra.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, there is less purely dramatic development in the course of the story. This is reflected to a certain extent in the series of purely decorative dance movements during the course of Act II which have tempted a number of choreographers to substitute darker themes in modern productions of the work. David Gutman’s entertaining programme note suggested yet another symbolic interpretation which I hope will not come to the attention of any would-be-clever modern producer. The score of Cinderella may not have all the variety that is to be found in Romeo and Juliet, but it is by no means to be despised because of this, especially when the music is delivered in such a coruscating performance as we heard here. This orchestra has always excelled in Prokofiev, and did so again here. I am delighted to say that the performance was enjoyed by a near-capacity audience in Hoddinott Hall. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio Cymru, and is scheduled for relay on BBC Radio 3 on the evening of 3 February. A performance of the same programme in Swansea on 24 January will also be relayed on a BBC Radio 3 afternoon concert at a later date, and both will be available to stream or download on BBC Sounds.
Paul Corfield Godfrey