Prom 14: CBSO/Yamada review – Smyth beguiles and Rachmaninov ravishes

Royal Albert Hall, London
Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for Violin and Horn was deftly handled by the CBSO’s chief conductor designate Kazuki Yamada and soloists Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider

Ethel Smyth’s music features prominently in this year’s Proms, and the centrepiece of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s concert with their chief conductor designate, Kazuki Yamada, was her Concerto for Violin and Horn, written in 1927. Reflective in mood and post-Romantic in idiom, it’s a striking, bittersweet work that flanks a meditative central Elegy with two ambiguous allegros that blend wit and brilliance with plunges into nostalgia and regret.

Getting the piece right in performance can be tricky as the unusual combination of instruments can result in problems of balance, with the horn swamping the violin, if the conductor isn’t careful. Yamada, however, admirably ensured even-handedness. Elena Urioste (violin) and Ben Goldscheider (horn) were the soloists, the innate nobility of his phrasing judiciously offsetting her more effusive lyricism. The Elegy, in which Smyth develops two parallel melodies in tandem, giving neither prominence, sounded gorgeous, and the big, accompanied double cadenza that dominates the finale was done with engaging flamboyance and considerable bravado. Yamada, meanwhile, discreetly underscored the almost Italianate warmth of Smyth’s orchestration with its rippling harp and lovely woodwind writing. It was a most beguiling performance.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Chief Conductor Designate Kazuki Yamada
Superbly detailed: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Chief Conductor Designate Kazuki Yamada. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Balance may not have been a problem here, though ironically it became an issue in Yamada’s oddly heavyweight, raw-round-the-edges account of the overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila: loud, prominent brass obscured too much of the scurrying detail in the strings, though the great cello melody that effectively forms the second subject had tremendous sweep and elation. Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony came after the interval, meanwhile, a finely judged performance, passionate without turning sentimental, urgent without ever seeming rushed. Yamada was keenly alert to both the score’s organic, continuously evolving thematic structure, and to the turbulence that forces its way from time to time to the surface. The playing here was really fine, too, superbly detailed and, in this instance, well balanced, the brass warm and clear, a wonderful richness in the strings, and the great clarinet solo that opens the adagio at once deeply felt and utterly ravishing.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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