“Youth” was the mot du jour at Barcelona’s L’Auditori, in a programme that had Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1 in F minor sharing the limelight with Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye, a suite that clearly exhibits his interest in the world of the child. This world is as much about dreamy fantasy as it is fear of the unknown, and under the baton of Antoni Wit, with Isabelle Faust as the soloist, the Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya effectively conveyed to an expectant audience a charming sense of innocence that was touching, but that was nonetheless slightly marred by a reluctance to engage fully with the darker undertones of all three works.

Originally conceived as a suite for piano duet, Ma Mère L’Oye was subsequently orchestrated and worked into a ballet by Ravel in 1911. Ravel’s wish was to evoke the poetry of his youth, and the elegantly uncluttered scoring conveys a sense of childlike fascination that permeates all five movements.

Justice was done to Ravel’s fabulous orchestration from the word go: the simple melody of the opening movement, “Pavane de la Belle au Bois dorment”, was rendered perfectly and passed effortlessly between woodwind and strings. An enthralled room was transported to a fantastical setting painted with beautiful, soft colours. Wit, unencumbered by a score, conducted with easy, graceful clarity, relaxing both orchestra and audience. This was surely to the benefit of the music, which flowed freely and effortlessly, yet remained utterly together.  

The upper strings played seamlessly throughout, notably during “Petit Poucet”, sounding as if from far off in a clearing barely perceptible amongst the trees, and reminding the silent hall that although we were being granted access to Ravel’s dream-like world, it was only as visitors looking in, adding to the tangible feeling of enchantment. Credit must go to the solo clarinet for his rich and velvety chalumeau tones that provided woody depth in “Laiderronnette”, and his sublimely phrased playing, at once plaintive and reassuring, as the voice of Beauty at the beginning of “Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête”. A gilded and atmospheric finale rendered this the most enjoyable piece of the night.

Isabelle Faust’s negotiation of the jumps around in the upper octaves of the instrument at the very beginning of Prokofiev’s energetically profound and innovative work was faultless; beautifully off the string and sitting effortlessly on the shimmering accompaniment. Indeed, delicate high passages were always handled exquisitely, but slightly more attack in the virtuosic Scherzo would not have gone amiss. A hint of this was given in the middle section, where Faust impressed with some grittily biting down-bows at the frog and low scalic passages played almost on the bridge that provided some of the frenzy that the Scherzo really needs throughout if it is not to lose its way.      

The change of movement heralds a complete change of character: this was handled well by the orchestra, with pleasingly spiccato bowing in the upper strings complementing the ominous ticking clock of the clarinet and bassoon. Faust’s vibrato was lyrical but never excessive, and her progression through the final series of machine-gun rapid scales and trills was undoubtedly exciting, reinforced by a majestically full brass sound that was underpinned by well-executed divisi arco and pizzicato in the double basses. However, Faust could have made somewhat more of the battle between the feverish dissonance of the chromatic runs and the uneasy serenity of the trills that characterizes this last movement.

Wit was again without a score for the Shostakovich, which was to the advantage of all. The piece was finished in 1925 at the termination of the composer’s conservatoire studies, to general amazement at the explosion of talent in someone so young. This is exemplified in the jaunty, vaudevillian Allegretto, to which Wit gave the attention necessary to keep it just from tipping over into chaos, aided by the percussion section’s tight exactitude.

The delightful bassoon in the Allegro and the haunting oboe at the beginning of the Lento notwithstanding, the true stars of this performance were the lower strings, providing a confidently snarling and precocious motor from the start of the Allegretto that was rarely equalled in style by the violins and violas. On many occasions in the Lento and the Allegro molto, these came in inappropriately loudly and then faded to a muddy murmur when Wit attempted to soften them, rather than matching the tone quality and excitement of the cellos and basses. Even in the tutti sections with their screaming melodies in the upper echelons of the violins, neither enough bow nor enough clout was used to render these convincingly “Shostakovich”.

Confident brass and percussion provided a stirring conclusion to the work, but the orchestra never quite captured the same magic as they commanded in the Ravel. If Homer was correct to state that “the whim of youth breaks all the rules”, then the orchestra could have done more to illustrate that whim, provided in spades by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, in their otherwise solid interpretation.