Review: BBC NOW – Huw Watkins Curates 1 & Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

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BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales – Huw Watkins Curates 1 & Beethoven’s 9th Symphony
Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre & St David’s Hall
Friday 12th & Friday 19th January 2018

Here’s to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who in 2018 are celebrating their 90th year! This highly important cultural institution have blessed Wales and beyond and we are privileged to see them in their various guises. Whether it’s in a concert here in their homeland, on tour, or doing the scores for various Welsh made TV shows, you cannot escape their grasp. I’m sure many a candle is blown and a cap is doffed this year. They are worthy of all the fuss and praise.

Starting off the new year, composer and pianist Huw Watkins curated his first concert. He is one lucky boy, curating two full concerts this new year. Here was a odd mix of English and Hungarian music, which I would say he got away with. With the relentless talk about our royal family in the news, Huw’s opening piece was Michael Tippett’s Suite For The Birthday of Prince Charles. This is an expectedly regal affair, filled with pomposity and some charming moments, which are usually fleeting and never return. Marches and lullabies fill the score, though it somehow has a queasy feel which is neither ironic nor inspired.

Not missing an opportunity to perform, Huw took up the challenge of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto. Whilst Britten’s music is usually very hit and miss, here is a concerto of great curiosity, leaving you feeling greatly surprised and stirred. Crammed with jazz, experimentation and a lot of bravado for the solo instrument, Huw has picked a rambunctious concerto all for himself. He plays with a hammering determination, never waning from its punches and pulls. A brilliant pick. Nice one, Huw!

Ending with Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, here is a piece which certainly divides people. Whilst I can’t deny the massive influence this composer has had on contemporary music, this work has to be my least favorite from his opus. This Hungarian composer is generous to give the whole orchestra solos; as a whole the piece does not maintain a steady pacing. There are some fantastic ideas going on here, moments which buzz with such vibrant colours, but your mind might drift away in the next passage.

Unsure? Listen for yourself:

Huw Watkins would not leave us just yet. A world premier by him a week later at St David’s Hall would be twinned with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. His Spring is a brief, orchestral tone poem which lacks in excitement. Not so much a seasonal evocation, more an abstract formation of the time of year. I noted temple blocks in the percussion section and wondered why they were not used more. It remains so lacklustre, we know that better work can be written as is proven by his Violin Concerto. We look forward to Huw’s final creation in the final year of his time with BBC NOW.

Following on was the piece to end all pieces: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The impact this composition has had on music is monumental, outweighing anything else in the symphonic canon. Granted the Germanic influence would go on with Brahms and Wagner, with later French composers dispelling them all. The piece is sadly overdone today, to the point of infurity. Yet, what does it sound like live?

Like all of Ludwig’s score, it has that earthiness and the vital energy that can never be unshaken. It’s a sprawling musical voyage lasting a good hour, the final movement accommodating four singer soloist and a chorus (this is how it gets its other name as the Choral Symphony). The Ode to Joy, the most famous part, has an instantly recognisable theme which starts in the cellos and double basses and soon infects the whole orchestra, then all the singers. It was not used in films such as Stalker, A Clockwork Orange and Sophie’s Choice for nothing!

Conducted by a reserved yet affirmed Ryan Wigglesworth (replacing an unwell Xian Zhang) it’s a rousing affair, which easily sweeps over you. Your love of humanity (though fleeting) warms you inside and the worthy standing ovation from several audience members was justified. I’ve yet to see St David’s this busy for a long time.

Here’s to more celebrations in their 90th year!


Huw Watkins Curates 1: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Listen to both concerts on BBC Radio 3 website, available for 30 days after airing.

BBC NOW continues with Huw Watkins Curates at Hoddinott Hall on 24th January. Next concert at St David’s Hall on 8th February is an all Scandinavian programme featuring Matthew Featherstone playing Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Sibelius’s 5th Symphony.

Related Articles:

BBC NOW – Elgar’s Cello Concerto

Review: BBC NOW – Respighi’s Pines of Rome @ St David’s Hall

Review: NDCW – P.A.R.A.D.E. & Tundra @ WMC

Photo Credit: Journal of Music

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