The tube strike didn’t deter Prommers on Wednesday night. Perhaps the Arena was not as full as it might otherwise have been, but the draw of a night of British music was clearly strong enough to counteract the inconvenience of travel chaos. The audience was well-rewarded too, enjoying an evening of fine performances from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of their Conductor Laureate, Tadaaki Otaka. Although that is not quite accurate, since Otaka needed nothing other than his hands to create sensitively balanced interpretations of English favourites Walton, Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, as well as the lesser-known Welsh composer Grace Williams.

Tadaaki Otaka and Ailish Tynan © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Tadaaki Otaka and Ailish Tynan
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

So much of the music would be considered so typically British that it would be easy for a conductor to fall into bombast, but Otaka steered a careful course, right from the opening of Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue. The opening brass fanfare was perfectly judged, and the BBCNOW followed Otaka’s expressive lead, with stirring strings in an assured, confident prelude. The Fugue was then attacked with gusto, while quieter interludes had poise and grace as well as feeling, before finishing in rousing style.

The next two pieces saw the orchestra joined by Chloë Hanslip on violin, and Ailish Tynan as soprano, for Vaughan Williams’ Violin Concerto in D Minor and Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars respectively. These were the least successful pieces of the evening, for different reasons. Hanslip was always a little more eager than Otaka, and they couldn’t quite agree on tempi. She did have a charmingly light touch in the opening Allegro, although her intonation wavered in places. The balance was absolutely perfect in a sensitively realised Adagio, and her cadenzas in this and the preceding movement were something to savour. The ending Presto was somewhat disrupted by the hall choosing to allow latecomers in between movements, and the ending seemed somewhat sudden, needing more of the hush of the Adagio to bring it to a close. It was also slightly odd that the programme repeatedly referred to the work as “Concerto accademico”, while pointing out that the title had been withdrawn. An encore of Salut d’Amour followed, perhaps unnecessarily, but well played.

Fairest of Stars is a concert aria in the Straussian mould; as such, it needed a singer such as Ailish Tynan to bring it to life. A good performance, however, couldn’t cover the fact that the music itself was found wanting. The programme pointed out that Grace Williams was an agnostic, and it showed in her setting of a text from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Additionally reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder if not in scale then certainly intensity, it was relentlessly lacking in nuance and spiritual feeling. Tynan brought some lovely moments of word-painting; particularly beautiful was her tone soaring up and down on “light” right towards the end, although at times she traded clarity of text for unneeded dramatic impetus. The balance was well-judged, however, and everyone worked hard to try to bring some light and shade to the work.

After the break, we were back in England, and the orchestra back to its own devices with Elgar’s Froissart Overture. Otaka’s meaty interpretation of this youthful work from Elgar had just the right level of indulgence from its vigourous start. Its softer moments were warm and gentle, Otaka not allowing the sound to become soggy, driving onwards through graceful but strong peaks. The orchestra was impressive, from taut strings to bright but never brash brass. The programme notes hinted that the work was perhaps too long, and this seemed a fair assessment from the performance, but focus never wavered and the finish was marvellous.

The concert was wisely bookended by Walton, finishing with his Symphony no. 2. It shimmered into being, energetic to the point of frantic, but assuredly so. The orchestra was full of fire and battle and at times there were flashes of The Rite of Spring, particularly when the bassoons were in full flow. The whole movement was underpinned by a seething anger, wonderfully controlled by Otaka. After this, the opening bassoon solo and woodwinds of the Lento appeared to promise a tonic, but it wasn’t long before we were in darker territory, tensely building up to a powerful climax before glimmeringly fading to nothing. Then the theme of the final movement boomed out, in truly risoluto fashion. There were a few minor hiccups transitioning from both the Theme to the Variations, and then from the Variations to the Fugato, but nothing to spoil the enjoyment of a fine performance which ended with dazzling brass and exploding strings.

***11