Prom 10: BBC Philharmonic/Mena – review

Royal Albert Hall, London

On paper, this was a beguiling, start-of-the-summer-holidays, trans-Pyrenean programme. And, in many ways, it did not disappoint. Debussy's three orchestral Images – of which by far the most substantial is his three-movement Ibéria – were interlaced with two of Ravel's important Spanish-influenced compositions and a major piece by Falla, a son of Cadiz who studied in Paris. Yet, somehow, for all its many beauties, it didn't quite come off as an event. The evening lacked a focal point. Tapas without a main course, perhaps.

The BBC Philharmonic is a high-class orchestra, and there was some refined woodwind playing in Debussy's Gigues, a work whose use of the Northumbrian Keel Row tune means its evocation of place is more Tyneside than Toledo. The delicacy of the strings, evaporating almost into silence, at the start of Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole was impressive, too. Yet the orchestra's soon-to-be chief conductor, the Basque-born Juanjo Mena, seemed a little too indulgent, allowing his players to linger in the Rapsodie's fragile detail rather than giving it a larger shape or more bite.

Ravel's orchestration of his own Alborada del Gracioso was more firmly presented. But Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain was best of all. For such a well-loved piece, the Nights can be hard to bring off, but Mena and soloist Steven Osborne achieved a convincing balance of light and shade, stillness and propulsion, in which the irresistible Andalusian qualities of the score were never allowed to dominate its larger frame. Finally, Ibéria itself, in which Mena again drew ravishing sounds from the orchestra, especially in the central movement Les Parfums de la Nuit – yet without quite achieving that elusive balance of form and content on which these pieces also depend.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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