Friday, 22 July 2022

Prom 9: Finch/BBC NOW/Matiakh - Ravel, Beamish, and Rimsky-Korsakov, 21 July 2022

Royal Albert Hall

Ravel: Shéhérazade – ouverture de féerie
Sally Beamish: Hive (world premiere)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Catrin Finch (harp)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ariane Matiakh (conductor)

Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou 

Two responses to the Persian legend of Scheherazade, the first clearly influenced by the second, sandwiched a new work (seemingly intended to be danced, though not here) for harp and orchestra in this, the first of my visits to this year’s BBC Proms. Ravel’s early overture Shéhérazade—not his song-cycle of the same name—was heard first in an excellent performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Ariane Matiakh. Steven Hudson’s warmly inviting oboe solo, free yet directed, swiftly joined by other fine woodwind soloists, imparted a fitting air of fantasy, of unfolding, Ravel’s motivic working—whatever prejudices one might hear concerning ‘national’ styles—crucial to the piece’s success and that of its performance too. Without ventriloquising the sound of a French orchestra, the BBC NOW assumed its spirit. If Matiakh could not quite conceal all the corners, a strong case was made. And if a certain sectional quality inherent to the piece endured, it was nicely sectional, as it were, suggesting both variety and a narrative path. This was a well-shaped reading, whose hothouse passages were relished, albeit integrated within a greater whole. Intervention from an audience member’s mobile telephone over several bars was less welcome, though just as apparent. 

Sally Beamish’s Hive, a BBC co-commission with the World Harp Congress, was at first a pandemic casualty, due for its premiere in the dread year of 2020. Its belated first performance was received enthusiastically, taking us through the four seasons of a beehive. ‘Winter: Inside the Hive’ opened promisingly: a non-hackneyed yet evocative impression of the season, here (to quote the composer) depicting ‘a close mass of bees, all shivering their flight muscles to keep their body temperature constant’. There was cold, yes, as there was shivering; but there was also a muscular strength, married to and in some cases expressed through orchestral colour. If the language were relatively ‘traditional’, it was definitely ‘traditional plus’, no mere resting on laurels (or honeycombs). Rhythmic drive increased as the movement progressed, interspersed with or, perhaps better, punctuated by passages of wonder. 

Spring brought well-nigh onomatopoeic birdsong, renewed energy, and dance, a bee’s ‘waggle dance’ included. Lightly scored—this is music for harp and orchestra, after all—there was nonetheless variety within that lightness, Catrin Finch’s harp playing surely definitive here (and elsewhere). One could readily visualise the drama throughout. Summer I found somewhat filmic, though it began in darker fashion. Again, the music’s representative character was evident as rival potential queens fought for their title and drones subsequently seized their moment. Autumn, for me at least, proved the most intriguing, both concluding and offering an uncertain future. With character and events of its own, its fade into the unknown had one stop, pause, think, and question whether this necessary cycle would continue forever. 

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade had the second half to itself. I rather liked Matiakh’s unassuming performance, determined to give the work something of that ‘symphonic’ stature rather than simply wallowing, but the Royal Albert Hall’s notorious acoustic proved less than ideal, swallowing up much sound before ever it could reach us. A severe opening, immediately balanced by post-Mendelssohnian woodwind and then the Scheherazade violin solo itself (leader Lesley Hatfield sweet and sinuous throughout) seemed a little flattened by the wall of sound that followed in the first movement. Others proved more variegated—or perhaps it was my ears that adapted to the acoustic. At any rate, all four movements flowed well, the first boasting lovely duetting between violin and various woodwind soloists. They too shone in ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’, winningly pictorial, even swashbuckling, but never only that, always musical. 

One could take ‘The Young Prince and Princess’ as an object lesson in orientalism, but this sympathetic performance brought one as close to ‘true’ sentiment as Rimsky comes here. It was spun gorgeously, yet languor was never excessive. Its metrical transformations, Liszt never far away, charmed. Like the fourth movement of Beamish’s Hive, the finale here sounded from the outset as a last chapter. Indeed, a keen sense of narrative was a hallmark of Matiakh’s performance throughout, revisiting and rehearing past material included. ‘Symphonic’? Yes, if you will, though perhaps ‘cyclical’ would be better. Ultimately, who cares? It was enjoyable and, at times, delectable.