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PROM 67 - Janáček, McCabe and Dvořák: David Pyatt (horn), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen, Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2009 (BBr)

Janáček, arranged by Vaclav Talich: The Cunning Little Vixen - suite (1921/1923 – arranged 1937)

John McCabe: Horn Concerto, Rainforest IV (2005/2006) (London première)

Dvořák: Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, op.95 (1893)

Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen is based on a character from a strip cartoon which appeared in the Brno daily newspaper People’s News. It is a charming work – almost entirely free from the stresses and strains which so often appear in this composer’s later works. This short suite is made up from music from Act 1 and it is a delight, and, what’s more, one never misses the voices so evocative is the music. This performance began poorly, the balance was too string dominated, but van Steen quickly corrected this and we heard a marvellous orchestral work, full of shimmering textures and great tunes. My companion pointed out that to hear this music in the opera house one never knew that it was as sumptuous and effective as it was here.

John McCabe wrote his Horn Concerto for David Pyatt and the BBC Welsh players and they gave the première two years ago in Cardiff. The title comes from the fact that McCabe has always been fascinated by various kinds of landscape – the Lake District (Cloudcatcher Fells for brass band), from childhood, desert landscape (Desert I : Lizard for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and percussion; Desert II : Horizon for 10 brass instruments; Desert III : Landscape for piano trio and Desert IV : Vista for solo recorder) and more recently rainforests (1 for small ensemble, 2 for solo trumpet and strings, 3 for wind ensemble and the present work), his having visited such areas in Australia. They all give him musical stimulus, but he cannot explain how, and that isn’t important for what interests us, the audience, is the finished product, the sounds we are going to hear. So what of this new Concerto? If like me you’re of the belief that a Concerto is battle between man and beast then this isn’t a Concerto, however, as McCabe told me, this is not about confrontation but it concerns dialogue and discussion. Written for a medium sized orchestra, it contains some very luscious music for the rainforest sections, and there is a fleeting influence of big band music from the west coast of the USA. The piece also includes a major part for marimba, which seems to comment on, and accompany, the soloist. It’s a fascinating tapestry of sound and, yes, it is full of discussion. This was a fine performance, but in the hall the soloist kept disappearing under, and sometimes into, the orchestral sound – it fared much better on the radio broadcast where the soloist is fully audible throughout. This is a more relaxed McCabe than we have heard in his bigger works – the Symphonies and many of the Concertos in particular – but it is still a major work. I think that, perhaps, I was expecting a kind of orchestral version of his Goddess Trilogy which he wrote for Ifor James and himself to play – that’s as dynamic a work as you could hope for, and quite Concerto–like!

Dvořák’s New World Symphony brought the evening to an exciting and very satisfying conclusion. The orchestral playing was excellent, special praise must go to Zoe Kitson playing the cor anglais, the brass were resplendent the woodwind lyrical and the strings gave the fullest, richest, sound imaginable. Apart from a couple of annoying mannerisms in the first movement, on the part of the conductor, this was thoroughly enjoyable – not least because he repeated the first movement’s exposition.

Bob Briggs

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