For his Proms debut, conductor Otto Tausk, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was joined by cellist Daniel Müller-Schott in a highly Romantic programme of works, all composed within just ten years. It is 160 years since Dame Ethel Smyth’s birth, and the Proms is also marking 100 years since some women in the UK won the right to vote. Smyth, an active suffragette, spending two months in prison for the cause, wrote six operas, of which The Wreckers was the third. Despite scant stagings, the Prelude to Act 2, ‘On the Cliffs of Cornwall’ does get occasional concert exposure, and rightly so. The music is warmly Romantic and highly evocative, and Tausk and the BBCNOW gave us an assured and atmospheric reading. The Cornish coast and the wild sea is there in the surging strings and rippling harps, and Smyth’s imaginatively ominous drum roll combined with the bass clarinet, over a tolling tuba was deftly handled, providing a welcome open to the evening’s programme.

Otto Tausk
© Marco Borggreve

Tausk and the BBCNOW took a little time at the opening of the first movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto for the tempo to settle, and a few orchestral solo entries had tentative beginnings. However, once underway, there was warmth and energy in the orchestral playing, and Müller-Schott’s first authoritative entry was followed by a beautifully lyrical second subject. In the Adagio, Müller-Schott’s singing tone was a delight, and he and Tausk took time to allow things to breathe, without ever feeling too indulgent. As ever, the RAH acoustic played havoc with the balance, something which (on a second listening via the BBC iPlayer) was expertly corrected for radio listeners. However, at times Tausk needed to allow the cello to cut through the thick orchestral textures. At one point in the Adagio, the soloist has a rapid string-crossing accompaniment to the woodwind theme – I could see Müller-Schott’s bow moving, but he was sadly inaudible. This was clearer on the radio, but even then, the orchestra could have been quieter, as the delicacy of Müller-Schott’s playing was delightful. The accompanied cadenza was touchingly intimate, and the peaceful conclusion expertly judged.

At the opening of the finale, it felt as if Müller-Schott was pushing for a quicker tempo, but they settled on a compromise quickly, a tad on the steady side. However, Tausk and the various orchestral soloists brought out the detail of Dvořák’s imaginative variety of orchestration beautifully. A warm brass chorale, showing one of the few tinges of the New World, led into a rich rendition of the closing passages for the soloist, and despite a minor wobble on the final long-held note, the brief energetic orchestral burst brought this strong performance to an emphatic close.

The enthusiastic audience encouraged Müller-Schott back for an encore, a moving unaccompanied rendition of Ernest Bloch’s yearning ‘Prayer’ from his three sketches, From Jewish Life. Unencumbered by any balance issues, here Müller-Schott’s warm, singing tone shone out and captivated a silent audience.

Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben divides opinion: is it overblown self-aggrandisement, or a knowingly ironic display of imaginative orchestration and invention? The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between; the fifth section’s self-quoting no fewer than 31 times could be seen as rather self-congratulatory, but it is also incredibly skilful, and his characterisation of the bitter, chattering critics (the Hero’s Adversaries) is full of humour in its clever orchestration. There is so much detail to navigate, and Tausk and the BBCNOW warmed to the challenge, with highly skilful solo and ensemble playing. At times, Tausk looked like he was communicating in semaphore, combining a secure beat with gestures to cue the myriad crucial orchestral entries.

Leader Lesley Hatfield deserves special mention for what is essentially a mini violin concerto, the Hero’s Companion (a portrait of Strauss’ wife), full of coquettish and wispy responses to the brooding horn overtures. Hatfield’s playing was precise, but also full of character, slowly warming the tone as the companion eventually succumbs to the lush romantic orchestral sweep, before subsiding into a relaxed conclusion. The percussion section gets its moment in the Hero’s Battlefield, and despite being a long way up the raked staging, the clattering drums were thrillingly tight. Here the woodwind were a little swamped, one place where a little detail became lost. But the return of the Hero’s theme on full strings and eight horns was suitably rousing and full-blooded. The final section was full of pastoral warmth, and the touching exchange between solo violin and horn beautifully judged, if slightly marred by an unsubtle trumpet entry, leading to the warm, unexpectedly understated brass conclusion. An impressively detailed performance of this crazy tour de force for the orchestra, and a strong Proms debut for Tausk.