Prom 6: Life is inextinguishable

David Matthews: A Vision of the Sea - BBC Commission, World Premiere

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Nielsen: Symphony No. 4, 'Inextinguishable'

Nobuyuki Tsujii, piano, Proms debut artist

BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena

How much of David Matthew's new work 'A Vision of the Sea' echoed the symphony heard five nights before I'm not sure, there was a sniff of La Mer and Oceanides. The tonal palate was for much of the time, to my ear, akin to Bax - and that's a great complement as no one could in invoke the mysterious eerie feeling of place as Bax. So the language was familiar and not too modern (no bad thing) though one of my favourite bits of seaside writing is Fog Tropes I by Ingram Marshall which paints a modern picture by modern means of the timeless quality of fog.

My main problem was that I thought some of the composer's ideas overstayed their welcome: there was too much repetition and too much uniformity in those repetitions too. I have listened to it three times now - I think it could be parred down a little to have a greater effect. But a grand piece of tone painting - ending with a sunrise modelled on scientific study.

Perhaps the image of the night was the huge hug Juanjo Mena gave pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii after a remarkable performance of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto. Remarkable for three reasons - first the heat in the Albert Hall was stifling for those of us sitting still, let alone those trying to work with instruments. Second there was an initial trepidation in this reading, Nobu (as he is affectionately called by the orchestra who worked with him a good deal in recent tours of Japan) shifted uneasily to get his piano stool just right and the fidgety feeling extended to the first few minutes of the concerto.  But reading grew and grew in stature - as Kathryn Stott said on Twitter an unfussy reading.  Third much as we might try to dismiss this, he has been blind from birth and such undertakings are always remarkable (probably more so to us than he realises). This is one of a handful of Rachmaninov's works which have sustained urgent orchestral interest and so it was a relief to find the BBC Philharmonic pushing it quite hard and playing out the full variety of the composers expression.

After tumultuous applause, and I mean tumultuous with Mena guiding the pianist on and off stage.  Mena sat on the edge of his podium - his back to the audience - smiling broadly as Nobo whipped the audience into a frenzy with his encore the very virtuosic La Campanella by Liszt - based on a tune from one of Pagannini's Violin Concerti.  The encore was met with some of the loudest applause I've heard in the Albert Hall.

The concert was as a sell out and lots of Japanese fans were there to support their man.  Noticeably they didn't all stick around for the meat of the programme, Nielsen's Fourth Symphony "Inextinguishable".  I should perhaps declare an interest here.  This symphony and it's older sibling the Third "Expansiva" mean a great deal to me - this is purely a musical thing.  The little I know of Nielsen does not inspire me - unlike say the political stands of Vaughan-Williams and Shostakovich.  There is little programmatic about either.  But there mix of harmonic innovation and imagination, rhythmical momentum and tone of utterance appeal to me in a profound deep and moving way.  At whatever personal meaning you take from their titles, there is something about those two words which resonate in all the good and bad times I experience.  Life to me should be expansive and inextinguishable. So I stood (viewing from the RAH Gallery) in great anticipation as one of my favourite conductors and an orchestra I admire immensely set too on this fiery work.

As it turns out Mena is a very fine Nielsen conductor - he knows about when to apply the accelerator or the brake and how hard.  He spared nothing for those who don't like their music spiky in whipping up a frenzy in those opening tumultuous bars. The music drives forward with a lithe and bright ear for the constant transformations which give this work life.  Some of the more astringent, challenging music in this score was faced head on - there was no lessening of dischords or smoothing of edges.  And it built to a tremendous conclusion.  The brass were exemplary - but the BBC Philharmonic woodwind deserve a mention mellifluous and awkward by turns as the music demands.  The final bars were exhilarating.


M. L. Liu said…
I was privileged to have the opportunity to listen to the BBC3 broadcast of this concert in the U.S., and then watch it on BBC's iPlayer days later. I truly appreciate the cultural exchange. Priceless.

I commend the performance of the BBC Phil, but I apologize, I am yet another one of those whose main interest in this concert was Nobuyuki Tsujii -- a.k.a. "Nobu", NOT "Nobo" as you wrote (perhaps a typo?)

I was deeply impressed with the reaction of the audience, and I agree completely with what you wrote about Nobu's performance. I have heard Nobu play Rach 2 countless times, and this performance was one of his best, especially under the demanding circumstances as you so aptly described.

I came away with a tremendous appreciation of conductor Mena. This was his first performance with Nobu. It is not unusual for Nobu to get a hug from a conductor. But I believe Maestro Mena is the first conductor ever that took the time to guide Nobu to shake hands with the concert master (Maestro Yuri Torchinsky). That thoughtful gesture drew tears from hardened me.

I thank you especially for not dwelling on Nobu's blindness.
Stephen North said…
Thank you for your comments - and apologies for the typo - now corrected :-)

Nobu is a very fine pianist - though much as I like that concerto - I would like to hear him in Beethoven or Brahms too. Have you herad him in those composers?

Mena is a remarkable conductor I have herad him live many times now - he can excel in Bruckner and Bach, de Falla and Turins as well as Schubert and Stravinsky. He conducts modern music well too. I will write up my visit to Mena's next Prom soon.

Thank you again for your comments.
M. L. Liu said…
Hi, again - Thank you for responding to my comment and for making the corrections.

Nobu has never played Brahms, to my knowledge, but he is celebrated for his Beethoven, for whom he has a special affinity because of Beethoven's deafness (Nobu said so in interviews). On YouTube, you will find a very fine performance by Nobu of the Emperor's Concerto as well as his performance of the Hammerklavier sonata performed at the Cliburn Competition, with which he awed the jury. Nobu also performed the "Tempest" sonata in recent recitals. I am in fact planning to see him perform the "Emperor" at the Carnegie Hall early next year with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

I agree with you that the BBC Phil is an outstanding orchestra. I saw them perform with Nobu twice in the U.K. And they certainly impressed many in Japan on their recent tour there (with Nobu and conductor Yutaka Sado). In addition to their musicianship, I was impressed with the humanity of the orchestra players. I am very glad that Nobu has developed a strong bond with this fine orchestra. They (with Mena and Nobu) will perform the Grieg Concerto in U.K. in November,

Thanks again for your fine piece. I envy you.

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