Tadaaki Otaka has a long working relationship with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, where he is now Conductor Laureate, and his return visits to Cardiff are always warmly welcomed. He began this programme with a lush, big-band account of Mozart’s Idomeneo overture, with a larger component of strings than is fashionable these days, and full, resonant vibrato all round. Those looking for a sharper, spikier Mozart sound should seek elsewhere, but the interpretation made a good introduction to a resolutely late-romantic concert programme.

Tadaaki Otaka © Masahide Sato
Tadaaki Otaka
© Masahide Sato

Thomas Zehetmair, from Mozart’s home city of Salzburg, is as experienced a conductor as he is a violinist, but there seemed to be no difference in interpretation of Prokofiev’s virtuosic second violin concerto with Otaka on the podium. Zehetmair worked (unusually for a solo violinist) from the score on the music stand, leaning deftly forward to make the page turns and flexing his knees to get a better view of the printed page. However, his performance was fluid and direct, unpedantic and passionate, allowing a flexible interplay between soloist and orchestra which emphasised all the varying voices of the concerto. The Allegro moderato first movement opens with the soloist unaccompanied, playing a subtle figure in G minor, which is then followed by the fuller melody of the second subject. The long-breathed arioso of the second subject harked back, as Prokofiev frequently does, to the 18th century, and the orchestra marked the tick-tock accompaniment with clarity and subtlety. The third movement is a heady danse macabre, with castanets that supposedly sound Spanish (the concerto was premiered in Spain) but sound to me more like the spooky rattle of bones in a dance of death. Chunky double- and triple-stopping gives the movement a percussive, gritty feel quite different from the earlier lyricism, and Zehetmair brought out the contrast with flair and humour. He encored the concerto with a movement of a solo violin sonata by Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

The second half of the programme consisted of Maurice Ravel’s ballet score Daphnis et Chloé, first performed during Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes 1912 season in Paris, although commissioned two years earlier and originally intended for the 1910 season. Ravel struggled mightily with this complex, large-scale work, but the struggle is not evident in the limpid score with its alternation between pastoral and bacchanal. It is worth comparing Ravel’s ballet to those of Stravinsky written at the same time – Firebird and Petrushka, both of which replaced Ravel’s projected work in 1910 and 1911 respectively. Closer than either in theme is The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky was writing at the time of Daphnis’s first performance.

The stage at St David’s Hall was filled to the edges by a greatly augmented BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with quadruple woodwind and a vast percussion section including wind machine. Behind them a wall of singers rose up imposingly: the BBC National Chorus of Wales is a formidable body of men and women (the latter outnumbering the former two to one) and even though their singing was confined to the vowel sounds ‘oo’ and ‘ah’ and the occasional nasal hum, they managed to produce an organ-like sound of great majesty and beauty, responding to Otaka’s efficient, informative and wholly unhistrionic style of conducting.

Daphnis and Chloe is a novel by the Greek writer Longus, and tells the story of two children abandoned in infancy and brought up by shepherds on the island of Lesbos. The two meet and fall in love, but are separated by various misadventures, including capture by raiders and attack by pirates, until eventually they are brought back together and their true identities are revealed. They live, it is a relief to note, happily ever after. Ravel’s ballet score is in three sections. The first opens with a lengthy introduction, followed by a religious dance, a dance by the cowherd Dorcon, Chloe’s clumsy and unsuccessful suitor, and a mystical dance of the nymphs, complete with gentle gusts from the wind machine. The war dance in the second part is full of rugged percussion that seems to prefigure The Rite of Spring. The third part begins with exquisite writing for woodwind. This comes to a climax in Daphnis and Chloe’s re-enactment of the story of Pan and Syrinx, which involves a virtuoso solo for flute (played to great acclaim by Matthew Featherstone, backed up by the piccolo of Eva Stewart and the alto flute of Elizabeth May) and the ballet ends with a bacchanalian dance which Ravel confessed he had copied largely from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Otaka, with his characteristic modesty, brought all the instrumental soloists to their feet to take the generous audience response, and invited the chorus’s artistic director Adrian Partington to accept his part in the applause.