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 Welsh Proms 2009 - Verdi, Rachmaninov, Schubert:  Peter Donohue (piano), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Owain Arwel Hughes (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23.7.2009 (GPu)

Giuseppe Verdi, Overture to Nabucco
Sergei Rachmaninov, Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Franz Schubert, Symphony No.9 in C

Owain Arwel Hughes doubtless has a very busy schedule, like many a conductor. He records extensively for BIS – including work with a variety of orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic, the Stuttgart Philharmonic, the Orchestre National De lille, the Royal Philharmonic and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (of which he has been Principal Conductor since 2007). He works regularly with many of these orchestras, as well as such orchestras as the Newfoundland Symphony, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the London Mozart Players. But, importantly, he finds time to make a major contribution to the musical life of his native Wales. Since 2003 he has done excellent work as Music Director of the national Youth Orchestra of Wales. Since founding them in 1986 he has been Artistic Director of the Cardiff Welsh Proms. Leaving aside the organisational work, his input as a conductor at the Welsh Proms is on a considerable scale; this year, for example, he conducted six concerts in thirteen days, with five different orchestras, in repertoire ranging from Schubert to Wagner, and Rossini to Sibelius, as well as a premiere by Karl Jenkins. Concert after concert, year after year, his work never seems to fall beneath the level of, at worst, the highly competent and the Welsh Proms are an admirable example of the ‘popular’ programming of classical (and other) music.

The overture to Verdi’s Nabucco opened this particular programme. As it happened, just two evenings before taking my seat in St. David’s Hall I had been listening to a summer festival production of Aida in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. That production had some attractive features, but I have to say that the orchestral work on that evening was inferior to what I heard back in Cardiff. The ensemble work was tighter and there was, perhaps surprisingly, rather more passionate expressiveness in the playing, by turns ferocious and tenderly melancholy, the phrasing of the variation on ‘Va pensiero’ particularly beautiful. Throughout it was conducted with an unpedantic attention to detail which never lost sight of the larger shapes. In Florence an Italian to my left punctuated the performance with cries of ‘Bravo Verdi’. He would surely not have been able to stay silent after (or, indeed, during!) this fine reading by Hughes and the operatically-experienced orchestra of the Welsh national Opera.

Peter Donohue was a commanding and authoritative soloist in Rachmaninov’s 1934 Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. I have to confess that this is a work which has always left me rather colder than it seems to leave many another listener. The work was, of course, a considerable ‘hit’ at its premiere in Baltimore in November of 1934, when Rachmaninov was the soloist and the Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Its popularity seems to have been pretty constant since then, so I recognise that mine is a minority point of view. Having said that, I found Donohue a more persuasive advocate of the work than many a pianist I have heard; his playing was crisply articulated throughout, full of well-shaped runs played with a pleasing variety of accentuation and colour. This was a less histrionic reading than some and the piece was surely the better for the relative restraint of Donohue and Hughes. Nobility was the dominant note, rather than sentiment. The famous melody of the eighteenth variation was played with satisfying elegance (the orchestral strings were notably impressive here, as the brass had been in the Verdi). Even were I a more demonstrative character than I am, I doubt if I should ever hear myself shouting ‘Bravo Rachmaninov’ – but there were those around me in the audience who (metaphorically at least) were doing so, and I could understand how the work of Donohue (particularly) and the orchestra might have elicited such enthusiasm.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of Schubert’s last symphony, the ‘Great’ C major. It is quite some time since I last heard a live performance of this work and I was eagerly anticipating this second half of the concert. I wasn’t disappointed. This might not have been one of the all-time great performances of the work, but it was certainly not merely routine. What a wonderful work this is! Profound, but free of excessive subjectivity or self-indulgence; the music of a capacious soul and mind. Though – especially by the standards of his own day – Schubert works on a very large canvas, he isn’t content to paint with a broad brush alone; though the music develops across some large structural sweeps, it is also rich with individualised detail. Though its mood is essentially optimistic, there are enough emotional shifts and darkenings to offer an effective challenge to that mood. It hovers on the cusp of the classical and the romantic, is structured (like any great symphony?) around the polarities of dynamism and repose, action and contemplation.

Hughes and the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera responded fully to the opening’s evocative atmosphere, with its atmospheric sense of distance and space, investing the andante introduction with a grave elegance rather than the loosely romantic wanderings of many a performance; the horn call of the opening worked its magic, and the ensuing allegro, prompted by the early statements of the trombones, was insistently rhythmical without ever becoming merely mechanical, the emotional differentiation of first and second themes convincing without the need for exaggeration. In the second movement, opening and closing in A minor and marked andante con moto, the tempo was beautifully judged and the contrast between the delicacy of, say, the oboe solo and the powerful orchestral tuttis was well handled. Perhaps the tightness of Schubert’s construction was sometimes not fully articulated in this movement, but the reservation is a minor one. The opening section of the vast third movement to my ears is, to borrow a famous phrase, the “apotheosis of the dance”, a dance of the gods, full of gentle power, conducted and played here with thoroughly attractive grace and a well-judged sense of scale, strong but with a feeling of power held in reserve. The central section – surely one of the most expansive scherzos ever written until now – richly deploys the woodwinds above the rhythmic patterns of the stings and, again, was played with a clarity of purpose that made its length seem thoroughly justified. In the last movement there were perhaps moments when the orchestra struggled to keep up the demanding pace and when the rhythms became just a little mechanical, but for the most part the movement’s extraordinary energy was sustained after the movement’s explosive opening. The ending was properly triumphant, a vivacious affirmation bringing this remarkable work to a conclusion.

Long may the Welsh Proms flourish! The contributions of Owain Arwel Hughes seem likely to remain an important element in their continuing success.

Glyn Pursglove


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