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Review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall, Cardiff

12 Jun 2022 4 minute read
Cello by Mathew Bajoras is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Peter Collins

Many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced and eager reporter for the South Wales Echo, I was dispatched by my news editor to Atlantic College, that renowned place of learning in the Vale of Glamorgan for “outstanding students who want to be change-makers for a better world,” to interview the Principal.

Unfortunately, I got lost within the walls of the 12th Century castle and knocked on the imposing door of one of the rooms to ask for help.

To my surprise, I was greeted by legendary French cellist, Paul Tortelier. He was giving a tutorial to a group of students who may well have gone on to change the world.

Monsieur Tortelier was there with the then UN Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, to promote peace and understanding in what were troubled times. Plus ca change.

I blurted out an apology for disturbing him, but in the charming, languid fashion which characterised his musicianship, he invited me to stay, provided I was “completely silent.” I stood like a statue for a fascinating half-hour that I’ll never forget.

Totelier has long held a place in the pantheon of great cellists.

Steven Isserlis, who gave a memorably spellbinding performance of Walton’s Cello Concerto to open this concert, certainly deserves to stand alongside them.

Sumptuous colour

One knew from the opening bars that we were in for something special. The orchestra, conducted by its principal conductor, Ryan Bancroft, was as one with Isserlis throughout the piece, providing the broad-brush strokes of sumptuous colour to the musical canvas, while Isserlis painted in the intricate details.

In a similar way to Tortelier, Isserlis plays with a genuine depth of feeling, freedom, individuality and intuition that draws the listener into the world created by the composer.

The world Walton creates here is a luminous one of mystery and lyrical beauty. Isserlis mixed boldness and a tenderness of expression to lead us into this world.

He was superbly supported by the attentive Bancroft and some fine playing by all sections of the orchestra.

There are two cadenzas in the final movement. Isserlis embraced both of them with impressive skill and understanding, totally captivating the audience.

Chilling and exhilarating

There has been much debate about whether Russian music should be included in concert programmes in this country as the war in Ukraine intensifies.

But it seemed entirely appropriate that Bancroft and the BBC NOW should end the season with a captivating performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10. Ironically, one wonders if this work is played in concert halls in Putin’s Russia. Almost certainly not.

The symphony is a programmatic attack on the Stalin years. It is by turns harrowing, chilling and exhilarating.

The symphony gave the animated Bancroft ample opportunity to throw himself into the music. He is certainly not from the Bernard Haitink conducting school of minimal gestures. But even the great Haitink would be hard pressed to produce a better performance of the work than this one.

Bancroft captured the repression and frustration of the first movement urging the orchestra forward in a brilliant account that had listeners pinned to their seats.

Underlying anger

The second movement is seen as a portrait of Stalin as the evil tyrant.

The orchestra followed Bancroft’s energetic lead in expressing the underlying anger in the music, but also deftly revealed its biting wit.

The orchestra was most impressive in the dark-hued third movement, portraying the uncaring state in a way that sent a chill down the spine.

Hope grows out of the darkness in the final movement. Bancroft led his orchestra and the audience toward these relatively sunny uplands with vibrant enthusiasm.

The performance was especially poignant because of its immediate relevance to the dark days we are witnessing. It had many in the audience on their feet, cheering for more than five minutes. It was certainly an evening to remember.

BBC NOW shared a glimpse of their rehearsal in Swansea Brangwyn Hall on Friday:

The digital programme for the concert can be found here

The concert in St David’s Hall was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast in ‘Afternoon Concert’. It will be available to stream or download for 30 days after broadcast via BBC Sounds, where you can also find podcasts and music mixes.

Visit for more information on future performances.

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