United Kingdom Prom 7 – Rachmaninoff, Coleridge-Taylor, Beethoven: Elena Urioste (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (conductor). Recorded (directed by Seren Irvine) for BBC TV on 19.7.2023. (JPr)
Rachmaninoff (orch. Respighi) – Five Études-tableaux
Coleridge-Taylor – Violin Concerto in G minor
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor
This programme was introduced on BBC TV by Katya Adler as ‘Three meaty works by three composers. What they have in common is that they were all written at pivotal times in the composer’s lives, they contemplate war, revolution and death.’
Some research suggests that Rachmaninoff’s Op.33 Études-tableaux were composed for piano at his country estate, Ivanovka, between August and September 1911 while those of Op.39 were from 1917 the year before Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia permanently. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky admired them and wanted his orchestra, the Boston Symphony, to play them. In 1929 he asked Rachmaninoff to select five to be orchestrated by the Italian Ottorino Respighi and Koussevitsky would conduct their premiere. Indeed, Rachmaninoff approved of Respighi and let him into some of the ideas behind the music he would orchestrate. He revealed how: ‘The first étude is the sea and seagulls. The second étude is inspired by images of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The third étude is a scene at a fair. The fourth étude is of a similar character, reminiscent of an oriental march. The fifth étude is a funeral march, on which I should like to dwell in some detail … The main theme is the march. The other theme represents choral singing. In the passage beginning with the sixteenth-notes [semiquavers] in C minor and a little later on in E-flat minor I pictured a shower of rain — fine, incessant and forlorn. The development of this passage reaches its culmination in C minor — the ringing of church bells. Then the ending is the opening theme or march.’
Respighi gave each ‘picture study’ a distinct title based on these programmatic clues from Rachmaninoff but rearranged the order. In the end – as Rachmaninoff suggested himself – it is music we can interpret in our own way. Under the batonless and encouraging hands of their Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave listeners a kaleidoscope of musical images during a convincingly colourful account of the five contrasting pieces. I particularly liked the gently lapping – and somewhat mesmerising – waves of ‘The Sea and the Seagulls’ and when Otaka was almost dancing on the podium during the all the fun of jaunty and lively ‘The Fair’. The ‘Funeral March’ had a sombre, portentous opening and morphed into an ominous tread, whilst the second ‘March’ was more like a fanfare, and in between the two was ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’ which seemed to depict her dramatic flight from the wolf.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto was next and this is a rarely-performed work only receiving its third (not second as BBC TV told us) Proms performance following 1912 and 2005. It had been composed for American violinist Maud Powell and originally conceived as being based on spirituals but Coleridge-Taylor was unhappy with his first attempt and rewrote the concerto using original thematic material. That would have been ok had parts not been lost en route from the UK to the US so the concerto after being rewritten was performed as it is now. It was premiered at the Norfolk Connecticut Music Festival on 4 June 1912 just a few months before the composer’s premature death.
The soloist at the Proms in 2023 was US-born Elena Urioste, an unfamiliar name to me. Many hear Dvořák and Elgar in this accessible, attractive work with its memorable tunes and one of those is the eloquent opening for the violinist which Ralph Vaughan Williams must have encountered before settling down to write The Lark Ascending shortly after the concerto’s first performance. This opening movement is otherwise rhapsodic with Urioste’s rich-toned violin, quite dark-hued and gypsy-like, almost in conversation with the most refined orchestral accompaniment from the smiling Otaka and the BBC NOW. Urioste brought biting attack to the cadenza which Coleridge-Taylor underpins by the timpani before she showed consummate technical finesse during the charmingly lyrical and filmic second movement which actually has a rather ominous ending in the orchestra. The final movement hints at a rondo and the ever-poised soloist found no challenges in the intricate fingerwork the composer demands as more rapturous music moved energetically from an emphatic opening to the reprise – for me at least – of ‘The Lark’ from the first movement.
During a brief interval interview Urioste said ‘I definitely feel Coleridge-Taylor’s writing is so genuine and so warm and just accessible in the best possible way … his music feels like a friend who you’ve known forever whether or not you have known him forever.’ Urioste’s encore was an absolute delight and with the support of a small ensemble of the BBC NOW strings she played Tom Poster’s dreamy arrangement of ‘Over the Rainbow’ (pianist Poster is Urioste’s husband.)
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was first heard in Vienna in late December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien. That concert was the composer’s (in)famous marathon – over four hours long – concert of mostly new music played by an under-rehearsed orchestra conducted by Beethoven himself. The Sixth Symphony also had its first performance at this concert and was played before the Fifth as the numbers of each symphony had been reversed in the programme on the day. The entire concert was deemed a failure not least because the hall was cold since it was December. Now the Fifth is considered a masterpiece and influential in this was the composer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a contemporary of Beethoven, who wrote a lengthy review hailing ‘Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.’
I doubt the BBC NOW’s big-boned sound was anything like what was heard in 1808 but I thought the orchestra under Otaka was outstanding. There was no let-up after the opening four-note motif – perhaps the most famous motif in Western music – which underpins the majestic first movement (Allegro con brio). Otaka’s Beethoven Fifth was fleet-footed and the tension only rarely slackened. At the same time he let all the details of the orchestration come through with absolute clarity. The BBC NOW’s sound was rich and deep and they convincingly brought out the beauty and exactness of the composer’s musical argument. The second movement (Andante con moto) was lyrical, yet march-like, becoming statelier and anthemic as it built to its resounding climax. The genial Otaka’s minimal gestures on the podium generated an incredible urgency from his musicians during the remaining movements. During the brief Scherzo the horns call out the main theme of the movement before the music ramped up contrapuntally. A timpani solo proves the innovative transition to the final movement (Allegro) which is – oddly for Beethoven – joyful and upbeat. There was just a sense of ennui creeping in as the music entered an almost perpetuum mobile phase but eventually we reached the blazing fortissimo C major tutti heights of the finale reinforced by the BBC NOW’s virtuosic trombones and piccolo.
A final comment, during this Prom there was too much annoying applause interrupting the music at the end of movements, though perhaps this is a debate best left for another time.