Tuesday 26 July 2022

Prom 14: Flavours of late romanticism, Yamada and the CBSO in Rachmaninov and Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth in 1922
Ethel Smyth in 1922
Four years before she began the concerto
Glinka, Smyth, Rachmaninov; Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Kazuki Yamada; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed 25 July 2022; (★★★★)

Smyth's imaginative concerto in a rare outing paired with Rachmaninov's great warhorse in a performance of great subtlety, refinement and elegance

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and chief conductor designate Kazuki Yamada made their first London appearance since the announcement of Yamada's appointment on Monday 25 July 2022 at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall with an eclectic programme that paired two 20th century late-Romantic works, Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in E minor and Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin and Horn, with soloists Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider, and the evening began with a Russian work from a far earlier generation, Glinka's overture to Russlan and Lyudmila.

Glinka's two operas, A Life for the Tsar (1837) and Russlan and Lyudmila (1842) form the founding elements of the 19th century Russian operatic style, though in the West Glinka's music is better known through concert excerpts than complete productions of operas, and in fact despite its wonderful music Russlan and Lyudmila is something of a dramatic muddle. The overture to the opera has become something of an orchestral showpiece, an excuse for an electric concert opener. Yamada and the CBSO took off like a rocket, crisp, vivid and tightly controlled, with a wonderfully resonant second subject. Despite the fast speed, detail was wonderfully clear, though not for the first time I wondered what this music would sound like played on a period instrument orchestra.

Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin and Horn was dedicated to Sir Henry Wood and premiered by him with the Queen's Hall Orchestra at the Queen's Hall in May 1927 with soloists Jelly d'Aranyi and Aubrey Brain. The work appeared at the Proms that year, with Antonio Brosa and Aubrey Brain, and Brain would play the work at its other pre-war appearances at the Proms in 1928 and 1932. In December 1928, Brain was the soloist with violinist Marjorie Heywood in a performance in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at a concert of Smyth's music where conducting was shared between Smyth and Bruno Walter, making Brain the first British horn player to perform a solo concerto abroad. 

There seems to be little recorded history about quite why Smyth wrote the work, certainly little help as to why she chose the two solo instruments. It is one of Smyth's few independent symphonic works (the majority of others are arrangements of excerpts from the operas), and her only concerto. It is also a very late work, coming at a time when she was easing off composing owing to her increasing deafness. That said, it is imaginatively and sensitively written for the two soloists.

As with Smyth's other works from the 1920s and 1930s which have entered the repertory recently, such as her opera FĂȘte galante (from 1921/22, see my record review) and the cantata The Prison (from 1929/30, see my record review), the orchestral style of the concerto is slightly tricky to place. Not quite English music of the 1920s yet leaving her Germanic, post-Brahms style somewhat behind. The solo writing uses the instruments in dialogue for a lot of the time, and the interactions between Urioste and Goldscheider had an ease about them which probably owed something to the fact that they are colleagues in the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.

The opening movement, 'Allegro Moderato' began with a restless orchestral introduction that was tonally uncertain, only settling with the poised violin entry. That first entry saw Urioste's violin supported discreetly by Goldscheider's horn, but the movement was very much a dialogue with the two instruments taking turns to come to the fore. Whilst there were Romantic moments, Smyth never indulged for long and the whole felt like one long conversation. The second movement is marked 'Elegy (In memoriam)', and the opening had a very definite Romantic feel with the soloists duetting over throbbing strings. Gradually moving into more complex harmonic territories, there were some lovely delicate textures and the movement felt as much a nocturne as an elegy. The finale, marked 'Allegro' began in fast and vivid manner. It was great fun, yet there were dark undertones and the writing for the soloists was quite restless with the two swapping roles constantly (something Urioste and Goldscheider did with ease). There was a striking double cadenza (accompanied by harp), leading to a very fun ending indeed. At a couple of times in this movement I caught whiffs of Dukas' 1897 symphonic poem,  L'Apprenti sorcier, but the movement's combination of rollicking fun and dark undertone also reminded me of Malcolm Arnold (discuss!).

The concerto was performed with great skill and affection by Urioste and Goldscheider, the two forming an effortless partnership and the work's technical challenges were hardly apparent. They were finely supported by Yamada and the orchestra.

For the second half, we moved to the Russia of 1908 for Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, a work which has regularly appeared at the Proms since Henry Wood conducted it in 1924. A mammoth work and something of a war-horse. Yamada took an elegant approach to the music, and the famous big tunes were never over-done and always full of elegant detail. He took great care in the shaping of individual melodies, and there was a subtlety to the whole which was refreshing. Many moments had great refinement, so that the beautifully delicate end to the third movement was simply magical.

His approach was quite expansive, though not necessarily slow and there where moments such as in the second movement when he whipped up a stunning amount of excitement, yet the prevailing mood was lower key, more subtle. The final movement with its vividly fast opening and rather swoopy second subject had a distinctly Hollywood feel about it too, though that is to project later composers' debt to Rachmaninov back onto the original.

One of the things that Yamada's approach highlighted was the rather Sibelian writing in some of the movements, so that there were passages in the first movement which seemed to echo Sibelius' symphonic style. Throughout the performance, what I came back to was the combination of elegance and superb detail with richness of texture and finely shaped phrasing.

The concert is available on BBC Sounds.

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