Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Friday, August 4, 2023

Royal Albert Hall, London

As Humphrey Bogart’s Rick says to Ingrid Bergman’s Lisa in Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris”. That might have been true for Klaus Mäkelä if he hadn’t conducted William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast again following this, It wasn’t Mäkelä’s finest half-hour. In London he explored the piece to greater effect, for articulation and clarity, without diminishing the feasting. Thomas Hampson was a vivid narrator, a master of the words, and the BBC Symphony Chorus rose to Mäkelä’s challenging tempos (sometimes too fast, if, this time, with greater point) and we were closer to just how remarkable Belshazzar’s Feast is. The ‘writing on the wall’ episode was gripping – with the choral shout of “Slain!” as good as it gets, loud and brutally incisive – with the ‘joyful noise’ that follows less of a fly-by than in Paris, the concluding pages exultant. Excellent playing, too.

The concert started with Jimmy López Bellido’s Perú negro, a suspenseful and atmospheric piece, colourfully scored (including unusual percussion), suggestive of a painterly showpiece, if in fact rather sinewy and dramatic, avoiding obviousness:

The main source of inspiration for this work is Afro-Peruvian music, but although the piece makes reference to six specific traditional songs, it is indeed very personal. I did not attempt to merely copy or reproduce Peruvian folklore. On the contrary, I assimilated it and created something entirely new and personal – an invented folklore of sorts, which bears the seal of my musical language.”

Although Perú negro has its popular aspects, such as the “traditional songs”, there is a tougher aspect to the fifteen-minute piece that sustains interest, the composer gratifyingly not playing to the gallery, a quality that ensures the need for a focussed listen as well as a return visit. This UK premiere was impressive.

It goes without saying that Yuja Wang is a brilliant pianist but whether her limitless technique compromises the music-making is another matter, perhaps it’s all too easy for her, for in Rachmaninov’s ingenious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini one could only admire the perfection of the playing if without being taken into the score itself, although her sensitive anticipation of ‘Variation XVIII’ caught the ear, as did the humorous pay-off at the piece’s very end, without fuss, amidst a lack of characterisation most of the time, well-accompanied if a little noisy in the cymbal-clash department. But in ‘Rachmaninov 150’ year Wang is certainly making significant contributions,, and see below. Her encores were Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R (the initials being the composer’s father), which she rampaged through in pub-piano style, but was stylishly scintillating in Vincent Youmans’s ‘Tea for Two’, arranged by Art Tatum, witty and affectionate.

During this Proms season most of Rachmaninov’s piano-and-orchestra works are scheduled – except the marvellous Concerto No.4, an inexcusable omission when such as Andsnes, Donohoe, Giltburg, Hough, Lugansky, Trifonov – and Wang – play it, as do others. An unjustly ‘Cinderella’ opus has been unfairly passed over. Cock-up!

Ashkenazy’s second recording of PC4, 1984; the first was with Previn, also Decca.