Who doesn’t enjoy a good story, especially one with more than a whiff of exoticism? Yet the enchantment lies, more often than not, in the telling of that story. Enter Scheherezade, who managed to keep the Sultan Shahriar entertained, and her life saved, with a judicious use of cliffhangers over the course of 1001 Nights. Such oriental allure would have exercised a huge pull over a composer like Rimsky-Korsakov with his eye for colour, texture and atmosphere. Even so, it was almost certainly the sudden death of his friend Borodin and the sight of the unfinished manuscript of the opera Prince Igor that planted the idea in his mind of creating “an orchestral suite representing… a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images”. 

Kerem Hasan
© Black Swan

Kerem Hasan, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, knew how to weave together all the richly ornamented arabesques of sound and evoke visual images that sparkled and shone in the sunlight but equally inhabited the spectral shadows. In this he was very ably supported by the sweet-toned solos of Duncan Riddell as the principal storyteller. Scheherezade depends both on vivid splashes of colour but also on the many subtleties of mood and phrasing which make up the warp and the weft of this elaborate orchestral tapestry.

It was Hasan’s very skilful balancing of individual instruments and sections which commanded attention throughout. At the start of the first movement the lower brass growled imposingly as the Sultan made his first terrifying entrance, answered by the most delicately inflected woodwind choir and the beguiling voice of the violin as narrator. There was much evidence of sensitive shaping of the melodic lines as the story progressed: in the second movement, for instance, the quasi recitando bassoon solos, a melting oboe, a nutty clarinet set against the delicacy of pizzicato strings, the piccolo incisive but never strident, the force of the string tremolos matching the braying trombones, the gentle comments from the percussion. If the RPO strings didn’t quite muster the lush sensuousness needed for the third movement in order to fill the air with heady perfume, they nevertheless played with tenderness and warmth. Hasan never fell into the trap of pulling out all the stops repeatedly, aware that angry brass quickly lose their venom if allowed to spit too often and too powerfully. It was altogether a thoroughly musical interpretation. 

At the start of the evening similar qualities informed an atmospheric reading of Weber’s Oberon overture, the fairy tale elements already foreshadowing the main work.

The young Japanese pianist Fumiya Koido was appearing with the RPO for the first time since winning the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition in 2019. Concerto is a form of theatre. As such you need a protagonist able to explore all the dimensions of a particular piece. Koido’s playing had a number of fine qualities: the technical assurance, the pearly runs and trills, the clarity of the sound. He was performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major but, truth to tell, it could have been by almost any other composer from the early part of the 19th century. There was a consistent but ultimately stultifying lightness of touch, his fingers often just brushing the keys. This produced a lot of Chopinesque sparkle, but where was the Beethovenian weight? Time and time again all the attention was drawn to what the right hand was doing, with the left hand relegated to a secondary role. The short slow movement was a particular disappointment, with dynamic levels hardly varying, whereas Hasan and his orchestra managed an almost perfect trajectory from assertiveness at the outset to ultimate submission at the close.