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Music review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Easter concert

03 May 2019

Garry Humphreys hears Rimsky-Korsakov’s take on an Orthodox Easter


EASTER has been celebrated musically in many contrasting ways by composers in various countries, often reflecting local traditions that go beyond the church walls and are treasured by the community.

Two at least of the composers whose work was played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at an Easter concert in its studio at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff — recorded on Maundy Thursday for transmission on Easter Monday — were self-confessed agnostics. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was not a Christian, but, like his compatriot Sergei Rachmaninov, never ceased to love and value the rituals and traditions of the Orthodox Church.

In his Russian Easter Festival Overture — written in 1888 around the same time as Capriccio Espagnol and the symphonic suite Scheherazade — he incorporated church themes that would have been well known to his listeners, associating Easter with the explosive coming of the Russian spring in pagan times.

The composer wrote that “this legendary and heathen aspect of the festival, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Holy Saturday to the unrestrained pagan-religious rejoicing on Easter morning, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture.”

And so he does, beginning with solemn chants and incorporating virtuosic cadenzas for solo violin (the orchestra’s leader, Lesley Hatfield) and flute (Matthew Featherstone), and a solo of sustained sweetness for cello (Alice Neary), and with a finale in which the full orchestra, replete with tolling bells, celebrates with a wild dance.

The conductor Jonathon Heyward is described as “one of the most exciting conductors of his generation” — the sort of claim one often reads in biographical notes, but, for once, this is not hyperbole. Impressive, too, was the eclectic programme of less familiar works; for, after the Rimsky-Korsakov, we heard Percy Grainger’s Blithe Bells, in its full orchestral version by the composer.

Described as “a free ramble on Bach’s aria ‘Sheep may safely graze’” the score goes on to explain that “the ramble is coloured by the thought that Bach, in writing the melody in thirds that opens and closes the number, may have aimed at giving a hint of the sound of sheep bells”. Grainger does some outrageous things that seem to come spontaneously to his rather subversive mind; but the result is wholly delightful, and somewhat impressionistic, in a very English way.

Very English, too, are Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs, the response of another “cheerful agnostic” composer to George Herbert’s wonderful poetry. Here the orchestra was joined by the baritone William Dazeley and the BBC National Chorus of Wales. This is a tough sing with a high tessitura for the soloist, and I wanted more warmth from Dazeley’s voice, particularly in the first song, “Easter” — “Rise heart; thy Lord is risen” — “saturated with musical imagery”, as the programme-note writer Jeremy Dibble so perfectly describes it.

The other great song and centrepiece of this cycle, the visionary “Love bade me welcome”, also rather lacked magic, despite the plainsong “O sacrum convivium” chanted by the chorus in the background. This always excellent choir brought the first half of the concert to a rousing conclusion with the final, wholly choral, movement of the Vaughan Williams, “Let all the world in every corner sing”.

After the interval, there was a startling change of sound and mood from the late-19th- and early-20th-century music of the first half, for a performance of Bach’s Easter Oratorio (Oster Oratorium, BWV 249), “Kommt, eilet und laufet”. That this is rarely heard is probably because it comprises solo recitatives and arias but (as in this 1735 revision of the 1725 original) only one chorus, at the end.

This music was originally to have been conducted by Jonathan Cohen, but he was indisposed, and his place was taken at short notice by Steven Devine, music director of Oxford’s New Chamber Opera and keyboard player of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He proved to be an inspired substitute, directing a performance full of vigour and forward movement and some excellent singing.

In this context, Dazeley sang mellifluously and was fully at ease in his part. He was joined by the soprano Anna Dennis and the tenor Nick Pritchard. But it was the countertenor William Towers who stole the show, particularly in the aria “Saget, saget mir geschwinde”, with pure tone and a fine sense of line. An unusual feature of this work is the recitatives that are each shared by two or three soloists, and here the team worked well together. The chorus, rather under-employed in this concert, sang the final, joyful chorus with great power and virtuosity.

One could not help but admire the orchestra’s rapid transformation of style from the first to the second half, with idiomatic dispatch of Bach’s music: a fine group of wind soloists (two each of oboes and flutes, magnificently virtuosic), three trumpets as if to the manner born (with a pair of Baroque timpani to support them), wonderful continuo-playing with energy and grace by the cellist, Neary, in particular, and strings, all directed from the harpsichord by Devine. It was a thoroughly enjoyable concert. The virtuosity of this splendid orchestra knows no bounds.

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