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Review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Royal Albert Hall, London

03 Aug 2023 4 minute read
Photo by St Stev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Peter Collins

There have been some murmurings of discontent about this year’s Proms concerts. The relative scarcity of top European orchestras, possibly due to Brexit restrictions, has been one source of concern, while the perceived lack of flair and imagination in concert programming has been another.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales seems to have benefited from the absence of our European music-making cousins.

By the middle of next week this fine orchestra, which can certainly stand alongside the best in Europe, will have graced the Royal Albert Hall stage four times, including two consecutive concerts this week under its principal conductor, Ryan Bancroft.

Welsh riches indeed for the indefatigable Prommers.

Alas, three of the orchestra’s concerts provide an example of that lack of vision that some seasoned Proms watchers have complained about.

The orchestra’s first concert, on July 19, featured Beethoven’s fifth symphony, while the concert on Tuesday of this week had Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 as it’s main piece.

The orchestra’s final appearance at this year’s Proms will feature Holst’s The Planets.


There is no doubt that this is all timeless music and its joys will never fade. The orchestra’s performance of the Beethoven, under the baton of conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka, was superb, demonstrating the orchestra’s respect for the maestro who has been associated with it for more than 30 years.

However, this repertoire can be heard frequently at concert halls around the country. Surely the Proms should offer something fresh and challenging.

That said, money talks and the importance of getting “bums on seats” is vital.

The hall was at just 60 per cent capacity for the orchestra’s all-American concert on Monday, which featured a new piece by Los Angeles – based composer Derrick Skye, and John Adams’s minimalist piece for orchestra and chorus, Harmonium.

However, the all-Russian concert featuring the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, was sold out, as was the Beethoven concert. There are no tickets left for next week’s performance of The Planets. The Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concerts were recorded for television broadcast. The all-American concert wasn’t. C’est la vie.

Strange to think that it wasn’t long ago that music by Russian composers was frowned upon and removed from concert programmes following the invasion of Ukraine. Now, as the war rumbles on, an all-Russian programme is cheered enthusiastically by an audience at one of the world’s leading music festivals.

It demonstrates a sad degree of hypocrisy and shows just how shallow the original protest action was.


The cheers for the orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth were merited, although it wasn’t quite the powerfully visceral interpretation I was hoping for.

It was nigh on 50 years ago that I first heard this work and it moved me to tears. Perhaps the passage of time has made me more cynical and dimmed my appreciation of the music’s struggle from darkness to light.

Bancroft was as animated and enthusiastic as ever as he drew from his players a performance that balanced subtlety and elegance with power and dynamism. The ending was triumphant up to a point, but at the end one felt slightly let down.

Many people in the audience were excited by the performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 by Isata Kanneh-Mason, a member of what has been described as the world’s most musical family who certainly get those bums on seats.

There was much to admire in her approach to what is the most popular of the composer’s five piano concertos.

She was well supported by the orchestra in revealing the understated beauty of the first movement.

The shifting colours and moods of the piece, mixing gentleness and jubilation, were captured in a performance which was impressive without reaching the heights of virtuosic brilliance and intensity.

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