CLASSICAL MUSIC / Review: The enigma ovations: Robert Cowan on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Proms
The hall was already stifling and fans flickered like butterflies as the gentle opening to Delius's Walk to the Paradise Garden cast its spell. That wonderful moment when the solo clarinet first confides the main theme was impeccably timed, but thereafter smoothness went proxy for passion, and the serenely peaceful central section sounded more like Wagner's Parsifal than Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet.
No, the star act was unquestionably Nobuko Imai, swaying in earnest to virtually every bar of Walton's deep mahogany Viola Concerto and inspiring the audience to applaud after each movement. Imai was on top form, and although her tone carried with less weight and security than, say, Yuri Bashmet's might have done, her musicianship and sense of line were mightily impressive. The scherzo found her leading the pack, with Otaka and his players in obedient tow, while the finale's huge fugal build-up heralded a deeply reflective epilogue - the high spot of a memorable performance.
The ovation was deafening, as it was for Elgar's First Symphony - but with far less justification. Perhaps it was the brass upstaging the strings that posed the biggest problem, or the lack of wistfulness in the first movement's many nostalgic interludes, or simply that the pain and pride that make each encounter with this wonderful score such a profound experience simply didn't register. Even the opening 'Nobilmente e semplice' sounded curiously matter-of-fact, while the ensuing allegro - one of the most dramatic and eventful in the repertory - seemed bereft of its native defiance. The scherzo, too, was more excitable than exciting; and when, towards the end of the movement, the basses grumble like distant thunder, their threats went for nothing. The main problem was, I fear, a lack of true conviction: I sympathised with the attentive promenader who stood, score in hand, urging things forward at each pivotal climax.
And when Elgar's music fails to convince, its stylistic origins start to sound more obvious: Wagner's there in the first movement, Reger in the second, Brahms and Wagner (Tristan, especially) in the third, and then Brahms again in the fourth. We're suddenly confronted with the strangely unfamiliar - although Heaven knows how many times the Proms have witnessed those stirring final pages - with the motto theme reigning triumphant amidst convulsive leaps from the whole orchestra. But here the tingle factor was singularly lacking, and all I could feel as the audience yelled its approval was a sense of bewilderment. Had I missed something? Luckily, my guilt was assuaged as I left the hall and caught a fragment of post-concert conversation: 'I fully approve of enthusiasm,' said one bemused promenader, 'but shouldn't there be some sense of discrimination?' Alas, I fear that on this occasion, at least, there wasn't.
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