wed 22/03/2023

Prom 9, Finch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Matiakh review - thrilling, conceptually fascinating evening | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 9, Finch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Matiakh review - thrilling, conceptually fascinating evening

Prom 9, Finch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Matiakh review - thrilling, conceptually fascinating evening

Two S(c)heherazades frame a beehive of activity by Sally Beamish

Good vibrations: Catrin Finch on the harp and Ariane Matiakh conductingAll images by Chris Christodoulou

The spirit of Sir Richard Burton loomed large over the Royal Albert Hall last night – a man who wrote about everything from falconry to erotica and whose death-defying expeditions took him across the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

Between 1885 and 1888 he produced a definitive translation of A Thousand And One Nights that galvanised intellectual Europe, not least because its content – which was often as illicit as it was exotic – could only be accessed by private subscribers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was arguably the first composer to produce a definitive response to this controversial text and his Scheherazade (1888) formed the second part of this musically and conceptually fascinating evening. The Prom’s first Shéhérazade (minus the “c”), was a subtly different exploration of orientalism composed in 1898 by the then little-known Ravel. In between them, Hive – a world premiere by Sally Beamish – tipped its hat to the Russian composer, going beyond the flight of the bumble bee to show how insect and human power games can be equally brutal.

All three works were performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted with meticulous élan by the French conductor Ariane Matiakh (pictured below) in her Proms debut. Throughout, Matiakh – the recently appointed chief conductor of the Würrtemberg Philharmonic in Reutlingen – deployed her conductor’s baton with the precision of a scalpel, filleting sound from the orchestra in a way that thrillingly revealed the anatomy of each composer’s intentions. Ariane MatiakhTo understand why beginning with the Ravel was – if not a tough – a slightly challenging call, it’s necessary to take a time machine back to 1898. At this point Ravel was a not particularly successful composition student, despite the encouragement of his teacher Gabriel Fauré – when he first conducted this Shéhérazade it was denounced by the critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, among others, as a “clumsy plagiarism of the Russian school”.

Ravel himself would reject the overture, going on to produce a second, more successful Shéhérazade – this time a song cycle – in 1904. However, in this deft account of his 1898 work by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales there was no sense of clumsiness; indeed in the formal experimentation it was possible to hear a foreshadow of later, more successful works, like Jeux d'eaux.

It opened with an oboe solo – chosen by Ravel presumably because the instrument’s descended from the Middle Eastern shawm. Lead oboe player David Hudson delivered the notes plangently before the theme was picked up by flutes who added a serpentine flourish. As the rest of the orchestra came in, led by the violins, there was a sense of sound shimmering like mirages in the desert. With the brass it built to a feverish intensity before moving into the second more lyrical section.

As the piece shifted from swooning lyricism to defiant agitato, from ripples of the harp to thunderous brass, the muscular discipline of the orchestra brought a constant sense of aerodynamic precision. Towards the end Ravel’s musical ideas started to feel a little too repetitive, yet while the performance didn’t reinstate the work as a classic, it certainly felt as enjoyably definitive an account as you could get.  Beamish, Finch and MatiakhThe second work, by Sally Beamish (pictured above on the left with Catrin Finch and Matiakh), should have débuted at the Proms in 2020, but was of course pushed off course by an organism even smaller than the insects it celebrates. Hive is a witty, enthralling composition; a miniature four seasons within the walls of a beehive, in which the orchestra engages in a cascading, dynamic “dance” with the harpist Catrin Finch.

The sense in the opening season, Winter, was at first of vibration rather than defined sound. The harp was muted, the flutes sounded hollowly and the cellos rasped in a dynamic composition of textures where you could almost see the bees’ legs moving and the wings agitating.

Rather like molecules, as the temperature heated up, the notes vibrated and moved around more, and with Spring the composition took flight. In Summer the Queens engaged in a fight to the death, accompanied by crescendoing trumpets and percussion that included Finch rapping on the frame of the harp with her knuckles. Finch (who made her Proms debut aged 11) was dressed vibrantly in a gold sequinned jacket, skinny black trousers and red pointed boots. Her electric, compelling performance ended with Autumn as the bees returned to the hive for winter.

After the interval, the orchestra deployed its full muscle to push us out onto the sea with Sinbad and experience why Rimsky-Korsakov’s work proved such an inspiration to other composers of the time. After the sinister descending whole tone scale – generally interpreted as an introduction of the murderous Sultan – and the soaring violin solo that evoked Scheherazade, the orchestra swung into the dynamic arpeggiated section that depicted the ebb and sway of the sea. BBC NOW PromThe music was composed during a period of time in which the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire meant that Russia and most European nations were as fixated on the Middle East for possible territorial gains as they were for its vivid mythology. Rimsky-Korsakov himself served in the imperial Russian navy; though he ended his life as a strident anti-imperialist, his extensive experience of travelling the world on ships brings a poetic sense of the geographical grandeur that he witnessed. Matiakh skilfully guides the orchestra through the subtle shifts in themes and textures. Each solo – whether it’s orchestra leader Lesley Hatfield’s searing delivery of the Scheherazade theme, or guest principal Jesper Svedberg’s elegiac performance on the cello – is brought out as if illuminated by spotlight before subsiding into the swell of the orchestra once more.

Our voyage through the different landscapes takes us to a fourth movement in which, with its pumping brass and agitated strings, we have a full sense of Baghdad at the full height of its Silk Road splendour. It’s a wonderful resonant climax to the evening. No surprise that Ravel and others would be inspired to push their own boundaries by Rimsky-Korsakov's example. Though you suspect he would have despaired if he had realised the degree to which Europe and Russia's romantic fascination with the Middle East would carry sinister political consequences as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Europeans started to ponder their own new world order.

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