A world première, a blind pianist and a timpani showdown – Prom 6, with the BBC Philharmonic and their chief conductor Juanjo Mena, was not lacking in content. The three big works commenced with David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, which was commissioned by the BBC for this Prom. The evening peaked with Nobuyuki Tsujii’s heartfelt performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and a rather sensational encore of Liszt’s La Campanella. Following this, the concert drew to a close with Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony. Despite the unusual programme choice, the concert was certainly engaging as each major work had a good punch to it.

Nobuyuki Tsujii performs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Nobuyuki Tsujii performs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Each piece was a large standalone entity with little connection to the next; it almost became three mini concerts in one. This could have been due to the staging needing to be re-jigged for every piece. The night commenced with a full orchestra spread across the stage, which then had the orchestral piano swapped for a solo concert Steinway. The final piece involved a set-up with the huge timpani up on the tiered staging, adding impact to the big timpani solos of Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” Symphony. During the swap-over, the orchestra ended up disproportionately smaller on the left-hand side of the stage. This put much more focus on the left percussionist and did upset the balance on stage. Despite this, the work still stood loud and explosive with its bold statement of defiance and dominating percussion. Nielsen’s works have been recently getting a fresh airing and this was a real showpiece. The pieces became more and more impactful as the concert went on, and this symphony provided the final fireworks.

The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra provided soundscapes in A Vision of the Sea, through David Matthews’ clever orchestration. The title for this piece was taken from a poem by Shelley. I wouldn’t call the piece innovative as a whole, as there were similarities to many compositional styles from the 20th and 21st centuries. The sweeping strings had a filmic quality and some of the more rhythmic passages resembling waves had an air of Stravinsky about them. Matthews did, however, employ an unusual technique to represent the final sunset. He based his musical harmonies on sounds of the coronal bands of the sun, as recorded by scientists. An F–C harmony was played against the lowest B on the bassoon to represent Shelley’s vision of the sea at one with the sun. This was one of the more compelling parts of the piece and certainly the most original. The BBC Philharmonic gave a great performance under conductor Juanjo Mena. To make this symphonic poem effective, the orchestra conjured up images of gulls with little glissandi on the violin, and the percussionists recreated the sounds of the sand being dragged back into the sea with rainsticks.

Mena was enjoyable to watch as a conductor. Not only did he have infallible command over the BBC Philharmonic, but he brought the best out of the orchestra, pulling the more important melodies into prominence at the right times. It was interesting to see Mena’s relationship with Tsujii on the stage. Nobuyuki Tsujii, a pianist who was born blind, has a cult following in his native Japan. He has played previously in Britain but this concert was his Proms debut. He gave a great performance.

One of the most famous piano concertos around, Rachmaninov’s Second is by no means an easy piece. Tsujii’s method of navigating around the piano and trusting muscle memory, sound and touch made his performance all the more impressive. He learns the pieces by ear as he finds braille music frustrating to use. When he was playing, his head moved from side to side and used his ears near the keyboard to listen closely to what he was playing, and to listen to the movement of the conductor in relation to the orchestra to keep himself in time. The middle movement was particularly beautiful and emotive, but the final movement was positively rich and sumptuous. Tsujii’s playing style is very outward, giving a true performance of the piece, and he certainly deserved the standing ovation he got as he was bowing arm in arm with Mena. His performance of Liszt’s La Campanella was a great choice as an encore: it was light and sweet, but still with the emotional edge of Tsujii’s playing. He made the trills sound so easy and performed a fantastic climax at the end of the piece.