Saturday 5 August 2023

Prom 27: eclectic mix - Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini & Walton's Belshazzar's Feast

Prom 27 -Walton's Belshazzar's Feast - Klaus Mäkelä, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 27 -Walton's Belshazzar's Feast - Klaus Mäkelä, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Jimmy López Bellido: Perú Negro, Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Walton: Belshazzar's Feast; Yuja Wang, Thomas Hampson, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Klaus Mäkelä, BBC Symphony Chorus; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

A vividly exciting and tightly controlled account of Walton's large-scale showpiece concludes a highly diverse Prom from Klaus Mäkelä and BBC forces

Friday night's BBC Prom (4 August 2023) at the Royal Albert Hall featured Klaus Mäkelä conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an eclectic programme, with pianist Yuja Wang, baritone Thomas Hampson and the BBC Symphony Chorus. The evening began with the UK premiere of Jimmy López Bellido's 2012 showpiece, Perú Negro, followed by Yuja Wang in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, then the evening closed with Walton's Belshazzar's Feast with Thomas Hampson.

It was one of those Proms programmes where each work was satisfactory in its own right but did not really speak to its neighbour. Perhaps the López Bellido and the Walton might have something to say to each other as both were works heavily invested in popular rhythms, albeit ones of different styles (López Bellido references the music of his Peruvian homeland whilst Walton is influenced by jazz). The Rachmaninoff and the Walton, at first sight, seem so distant from each other. Yet they were, amazingly, premiered within three years of each other. Rachmaninoff premiered Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini in 1934 whilst Walton's Belshazzar's Feast premiered at the 1931 Leeds Festival. And if we want to keep with the idea of surprising parallels, the Berg's Lyric Suite premiered just before, in 1927! 

Prom 27 - Klaus Mäkelä - BBC Proms (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 27 - Klaus Mäkelä - BBC Proms (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Perhaps my slightly disappointed reaction to the programme was also exacerbated by the fact that stage movements and such seemed to elongate what was a relatively compact first half into around an hour.

Jimmy López Bellido's Perú Negro is a tribute to Peru whereby the composer weaves six different Peruvian songs into an enjoyable fifteen-minute-plus fantasy. Each section featured a different melody, and López Bellido applies a different set of colours, textures and moods to each. He used the large orchestra with its substantial percussion department with a sure hand. The mood moved from the solo horn fanfare at the beginning, through rhythmically jazzy strings and laid-back melodies, to propulsive energy and vivid climaxes. The final section began with slow and striking brass and percussion, intriguing orchestra textures building slowly to a vivid climax.

Klaus Mäkelä and Yuja Wang took a very particular view of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, and it was clear that two were very much in synch. Throughout, Mäkelä kept the orchestra on a tight rein, giving Wang the space to play the solo part with remarkable delicacy. Now, up front I had probably better say that I find the work the least favourite amongst Rachmaninoff's symphonic and concertante works by a long chalk. Perhaps my attitude is coloured by vivid images of Anthony Dowell wiggling his bottom and grinning at the audience during performances of Frederick Ashton's ballet Rhapsody, based on the work!

After a couple of moments of drama, Mäkelä and the orchestra played with crisp intent, allowing Wang to demonstrate dazzling busyness in the piano whilst not being over spot lit. Throughout playing from the orchestra was usually crisp and tight, Mäkelä rarely letting them off the leash. Responding to this, Wang played with enormous delicacy. Yes, she dashed off virtuoso and bravura moments, but often these were intimate. Only rarely did we get big banging Rachmaninoff, and those moments usually did not last long. Even that big tune was delicately played. It felt a very anti-romantic performance, Mäkelä and the orchestra crisp and tight, Wang often intimate and delicate.

The audience reaction was tremendous, and Wang gave us two encores, both delicate and lively, one Rachmaninoff (I think), the other Tea for Two. Enjoyable enough, but we had to work hard for them, and there was a lot of walking on and off involved!

Prom 27 - Yuja Wang, Klaus Mäkelä, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 27 - Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Yuja Wang, Klaus Mäkelä, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

Yuja Wang wore one of her trademark outfits (see above) and this rather set me thinking about the inequality of standards between the genders in concert dress. How would the audience have reacted if Klaus Mäkelä had worn an outfit as revealing as Yuja Wang's. There is no reason why he shouldn't, after all!

After the interval, Walton's Belshazzar's Feast could not have been more different. Except...

After the brilliantly strong opening from the male chorus, the orchestral contribution was crisp and tight, with sharply vivid rhythms. Mäkelä seemed to go for strong accents, marked moments and crisp rhythms. Throughout, you noticed this sort of detail from orchestra and chorus. Yes, the massive moments were there (with the extra brass sitting by the side of the stage not elsewhere in the auditorium), but Mäkelä did not seem to be interested in volume for its own sake, and I kept coming back to the vivid sense of rhythm that he brought out. The whole work seemed to be about this tightly controlled sense of excitement, underpinned by sharp rhythms.

The choir was on terrific form. Often performed at the Royal Albert Hall by multiple choirs, here we just had the BBC Symphony Chorus who provided all the necessary volume, but also wonderful discipline. The singers coped with Mäkelä's sometimes rather fast speeds, and clearly imbued his need for accuracy and discipline in the rhythms. Much of the choral singing had a terrific rhythmic excitement about it and the final section concluded with a vivid feeling of engagement as Mäkelä let the speed pick up terrifically. And despite the challenge of the music, the choir's sense of engagement and enjoyment was palpable. Diction was terrific too, we never needed to check the programme.

Thomas Hampson was the somewhat surprising baritone soloist. He sang with confidence and a sense of drama, but I found his approach somewhat stylised with rather too much over emphasis in his delivery. However, he made every word count.

I have heard bigger performances of Belshazzar's Feast but never one quite as tightly rhythmical or as vividly exciting as this. As well as being on BBC Sounds, the concert was televised, so look out for it on BBC 4 on Friday 11 August 2023, BBC website.

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Elsewhere on this blog

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  • Prom 16: Sir Mark Elder & the Hallé in Rachmaninoff's The Bells & Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5  - concert review
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