There is always excitement when a world première comes along. Michael Berkeley's new Violin Concerto, which was written as a memorial to his late wife, combined an interesting mix of ingredients from his compositional melting pot to create a particular soundworld. Amongst these were Nigel Kennedy's electric violin tribute to Jimi Hendrix at Ronnie Scott's and the “peculiar watery gurgling” sound of the tabla.
Chloë Hanslip was an inspired choice to give the first performance. She demonstrated the emotional intensity that Berkeley was looking for, with a sweetness of tone and a sharpness that was crucial, particularly in the third movement. The versatile multi-percussionist and sound artist Diego Espinosa Cruz González completed the line-up in a key supporting role on tabla. The concerto, in three movements, is played continuously.
The ritualistic first movement opened with stark percussive strikes. Solo violin, percussion and tabla introduced and developed initial themes and moods before growing more agitated, with violin and tabla parrying at first with individual sections of the orchestra and then with the full orchestra. The more lyrical and elegiac second movement was played quite superbly by Hanslip, who oozed fluidity and created an air of sustained tension and nostalgia. Under Jac van Steen's direction, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was an impressive partner, draping a shimmering cloak of textures over mysterious harmonies and disturbing undertones.
The striking of chimes in another ritual summons heralded the introduction of the electric violin, with its harsh amplified tones deliberately sharp and wailing, coupled with appropriately complementary sounds such as those from high winds and mallet instruments. Following a return to a quieter more reflective episode and a switch back to the acoustic violin, the piece closed with a peaceful, trance-like passage, although this was harshly interrupted at the very end by a perfunctory solitary drum gesture. This was powerful stuff, performed brilliantly.
Either side of this piece were performances of two ballet scores: one French and one Russian.
Paul Dukas wrote many compositions, destroyed a good number of them, and published just a few. His last significant work, La Péri, is a 20-minute ballet score full of exotic flavours. It is one of his most accomplished and colourful scores, written as an impressionist piece to resemble “a kind of translucent and dazzling enamel”, and depicts the Persian tale of Iskender's quest for immortality and his confrontation with a Péri (fairy). The main ballet, subtitled “poème dansé”, is preceded by a brass fanfare, sometimes performed as a stand-alone piece. Jac van Steen and the BBC NOW went straight in, brass players standing and commanding the audience's attention with a warm and emphatic sound.
As the fanfare gave way to the main ballet, van Steen captured the marked difference in colour very effectively with quiet tremolo strings producing an intoxicating effect and ethereal, almost Messiaenic chords (Messiaen was after all one of Dukas' students). The variety of colour in this score was exhibited very well in the first and last sections of the piece. But things drifted a little in the middle section, where there was a more homogenous sound and not as much contrast as might be expected. The tuttis were full and round, however, and there was good drive and enthusiasm from van Steen.
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest of full-length ballets, with the full drama of Shakespeare's play captured magnificently by Prokofiev's spectacular score. The BBC NOW performed extracts from the full ballet, rather than reworkings from one of the composer's three suites, and van Steen very effectively drew out the full range of emotions and textures in the music with a good narrative thrust. The orchestra relished in the sumptuous, rich tones and sweeping orchestral gestures, particularly in the “Introduction” and “The Duke's Command”, with a nice distinction drawn out between timbres and different instruments.
They revelled in the more frivolous and jaunty elements too, with good changes of pace and plenty of bounce and light-heartedness, particularly in “Morning Dance”, “Gavotte” and “Public Merrymaking”. There was excellent scurrying of the strings in “The Fight”, with the pomposity of the brass suitably ponderous. The popular “Dance of the Knights” was strident and powerful, with the delicate touches nicely pointed. The real strength of this performance was in the more romantic and melancholic episodes, and there was a particularly haunting metronomic passage depicting Juliet taking the sleeping potion.
But amongst all of this, it all felt a bit too safe. The performance was lacking that extra bite and grit that characterises much of Prokofiev's more angular music. Though if you like your Prokofiev lyrical and polished with no rough edges, then this was the performance for you.
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