Proms BBC National Orchestra of Wales Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
Works by two Russians and a Lancastrian made up the programme of the second Proms concert, given on Wednesday, by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. Whether it was the heat in the hall or the distraction of TV cameras, this was a concert distinctly under par. The Flight of Icarus by Burnley-born John Pickard, receiving its London premiere, is not a work new to the orchestra. Indeed, it was commissioned by the BBC and first played in January 1991. Since then the NOW has played it seven times, rather remarkable for a new work. And it showed. Unlike the rest of the programme, this piece seemed to have got firmly under the grip of the orchestra. The Flight of Icarus is a celebration of space travel coupled with the idea "that human endeavour inevitably generates catastrophe", as Pickard puts it in his programme note. Lasting 20 minutes and scored for a huge orchestra, it apes the tone poems of Strauss and the symphonies of Robert Simpson (for whom the composer has a particular affection) without, alas, the discipline of thought.

Steven Isserlis was a somewhat bizarre choice of soloist for one of the repertory's steeliest of works, Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. Hyped in the programme as "the soloist who gave the premiere of John Taverner's The Protecting Veil", Isserlis appeared at times to be trying to transform Shosta-kovich into Taverner. Clearly, from the risks Isserlis is taking, the Shostakovich is a work he's trying out. No doubt listeners at home heard more than we did in the hall, for time and again Isserlis's sound on gut strings was drowned out by the orchestra, and intonation was initially a problem, though later Isserlis's pitch at the top of the cello was near miraculous. His experiment in forsaking vibrato for long stretches of the slow movement conjured up the sound of Baroque authenticism. Shostakovich's theme may be bleak but if robbed of its warmth it loses its pathos. This small-scale reading seemed to inhibit the orchestra - perhaps they were having trouble hearing Isserlis? But there was fine playing from the winds, particularly the solo horn.

Ending the programme with Rachmaninov's Second Symphony was a bold choice. This is a score lasting 55 minutes, much of it wallowing in luscious romantic themes. And the temptation is to wallow. Wigglesworth was conducting without score, a score that teems with instruction. From his gestures, he appeared oblivious to the dynamic detail that Rachmaninov supplies to shape his repetitive style. And rhythmically, where was the taughtness? Rachmaninov without "bite" is a sorry affair, but perhaps Wigglesworth was concentrating on the televisual appeal of "the big tune".

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