It is always exciting to witness the birth of a new piece of composition, all the more so when the soloist is the inimitable Yo-Yo Ma. Graham Fitkin’s new Cello Concerto, a BBC commission, was perfectly tailored for this amazing cellist: Fitkin explained prior to the concert how he collaborated closely with Ma and how sometimes the cellist would make creative suggestions which would be reflected in the work. The resulting work, as Fitkin himself admits, is darker and bleaker than his usual works, and less rhythm-driven in order to highlight the lyrical qualities of Yo-Yo Ma’s playing.

© BBC / Michael ONeil
© BBC / Michael ONeil

In one continuous movement, the concerto begins atmospherically with a long sustained B-flat note on the cello, seeming to suggest a lone character keeping a distance from the world around him. The orchestra makes their statement, but it is clearly at odds with the cello and this emotional discord runs throughout the concerto. At times the cello and the orchestra move closer, but they come to a head in the middle section and ultimately the work concludes as it began on a sustained cello note. There were some interesting orchestral sonorities from muted trumpets, harps and vibraphones. I could sense that Fitkin was being very cautious – perhaps too cautious – about his orchestral writing not overwhelming the soloist, and overall it was successful although it will perhaps work better performed in a less grand space. Yo-Yo Ma performed with total commitment and his trademark finesse and the orchestra, under the astute conducting of David Robertson, responded with fine playing all around.

Unfortunately, one could not say that about the performance of the Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the second half, which was poor.

The first movement started briskly, in fact too briskly, without the driving energy within the work. Robertson didn’t highlight any of the important moments in this seminal work and the music just seemed to pass by. There was a slip in the oboe solo in the second movement and another in the horn solo in the third movement, and in the finale, Christine Brewer seemed to be off colour, swooping hugely to reach her top notes. The other soloists were better: Iain Patterson’s opening “Freude” call was suitably stirring and the chorus responded with warmth, and Toby Spence sang the tenor aria with nobility and excelled in the ensembles. Incidentally, it was good to have the singers on stage through the work, as it doesn’t interrupt the music before the third movement, but it was a strange choice to place them all on the side of the stage in front of the female chorus.

David Robertson’s approach, at least in his tempi and articulation, seem to take account of scholarly editions and historical performance practice, but only on an intellectual level and without heart or spirit. In the same week that we heard an amazingly refreshing and innovative rendition of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony from the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, we expected a little more integrity from our Proms resident orchestra.