British regional orchestras, especially those served by the BBC, have frequently been a valuable training ground for young conductors, in much the same way that opera houses in Germany provided the all-important first rung on the ladder for rising talent there. Ryan Bancroft won the Nikolai Malko Conducting Competition in 2018 and was appointed to his current position as chief conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales a year later. Here, making his first appearance at the Proms and taking over from Elim Chan because of what were said to be “scheduling difficulties”, he retained the original programme, with Guy Johnston stepping in for the similarly unavailable Sol Gabetta. All credit for that.

Ryan Bancroft
© Chris Christodoulou

Even when provided with helpful notes in programme books, reviewers have a habit of looking for guiding threads and thematic continuity. This concert was billed as “guilt-free inspiration from the past while fashioning the new”. I’m not persuaded that this made a great deal of sense apart from references to musical forms such as the chaconne and passacaglia, glimpses of which were on display in the evening’s symphony as well as in the world premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek’s Cloudline. She derived some of her ideas from watching the BBC’s Killing Eve, but in the music itself there was little or no hint of the violence with which this drama series became synonymous. Instead, the piece edged its way along with the help of tonal clusters, oboe and flute figurations, fluttering trumpets and an aurally interesting marimba contribution before returning to the darkness with which it started.

Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor, Op.33 sat uneasily in this programme. If there was an inspiration, it surely had to be Mozart, who for Saint-Saëns was an abiding example of melodic inventiveness, old-fashioned charm and gracefulness. Johnston chose to emphasise the elegant and rhapsodic sections of the score in a lean and intimate realisation, at his best in the gentle musings of the slow movement. What I missed, however, were the contrasts: the start was languorous rather than explosive, and in the Finale the conductor’s attempts to inject galvanising energy into the accompaniment were not reciprocated by the soloist. In a hall this size there needed to be a much greater projection of the solo part.

Guy Johnston
© Chris Christodoulou

Having watched a good number of online concerts with socially distanced players (as here), I have frequently been troubled by two things. One is the absence of needle-sharp precision in the ensemble. Given that there is no longer a legal requirement to practise social distancing, I wonder why players are still spaced out so liberally, thus restricting the number of strings. The other is the ensuing imbalance between orchestral sections. Fielding just four double-basses, the BBC NOW sounded underpowered in its string section, not helped by the serried ranks of woodwind and brass whose individual and collective contributions drowned out much else. It might be argued that Bancroft’s way with Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 in E minor, Op.98 removed the “stodge” which this composer is sometimes accused of having written. There was a great deal of transparency to be sure, but when the trombones dominate the orchestral textures from the start of the Finale, as happened here, there is inevitably a law of diminishing returns. There is so much rewarding inner string detail in this symphony, not least in the slow movement where the deeper and darker colours so essential to Brahms should infuse the sound with a glowing quality. When this is absent, emotional depth is lost. The Scherzo too was on the verge of goose-stepping mode, marziale rather than the giocoso indicated, with trumpets (Bancroft’s own instrument) given particular prominence.