A "riot of orchestral colour" was promised, but little of it was allowed to flourish.

David Goode © BBC / Malcolm Crowthers
David Goode
© BBC / Malcolm Crowthers

Elgar's Cockaigne Overture, written during the winter of 1900-01, is a portrait of a busy London, conjuring the hustle and bustle of everyday, metropolitan life. The orchestration, as is typical of Elgar, is often very detailed, the principal threads of the texture being added to momentarily here and there, as a flute highlights this and a tuba underscores that. Jac van Steen, the principal guest conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, exerted tight control over the score, but often at the expense of integration. As a result, the sound was unequal rather than homogeneous, which was further upset by moments of poor orchestral balance, the brass at times overwhelming their colleagues. Yet this was spirited playing that did much to realise the charm of Elgar's score.

Then came the nightmarish psalmody of Michael Berkeley's organ concerto. Originally written in 1987, it has had to wait some twenty-four years before its London première; and on hearing it, it's obvious why. Apparently influenced by Berkeley's own childhood recollections of being a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, one would be forgiven for assuming he passed a deeply unhappy time there. Incorporating quotations from one of his own motets, the work sounds a little like liturgical music that is the worse for wear: nothing really comes from the single-span structure, apart from the relief of its cyclic resolution. van Steen bolted the work together with laser-like precision, the players responding with an exact but unfeeling accuracy; David Goode was the seemingly effortless soloist, who navigated the unrewarding tirades and cleverly played with the few opportunities for orchestral-timbral interplay.

Another effortless soloist was Marc-André Hamelin, who was blessed with more rewarding goods. His reading of Rachmaninov's endearing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was strictly matter-of-fact, allowing only the briefest fantasy into the celebrated eighteenth variation. Indeed, it could have grown more, for, whilst the introduction benefited greatly from this enhanced clarity, as the variations developed and the textures became accordingly darker and more complex, so too the playing needed to be bolstered by a little more bravura. Hamelin could have been better supported too, however van Steen seemed to have a gesture for everything, but many seemed lost, or, even worse, to interfere. The result was unrhythmic playing that often lagged, qualities that certainly weren't reflected in Hamelin's foward-looking account.

This fussy direction put the brakes on the Kodály as well, which became all too literal and stilted, rather than fun. There were moments of wonderful playing: guest principal violist Jörg Winkler's solo at the beginning of the third movement was particularly beautiful. And, just like Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie is the annual outing for the bizarre ondes Martenot, Háry János does the same for the cimbalom. This instrument – effectively a hammered dulcimer – is archetypal of Austro-Hungarian music, and lends the work its distinctive colour. It was deftly played by Ed Cervenka.

It was a shame for, in its fifth and final concert in this year's Proms, the BBC NOW sounded as if it still had plenty of energy to expend. Furthermore, it has an increasingly starred roster of players. But this evening they were hampered when they would have been best left to their own devices, never being allowed to play simply and freely.

***11