The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande built its reputation on its performances and recordings of French and Russian music, so it seemed apt that it should bring this repertoire to its much belated very first Prom. The Geneva-based orchestra was founded exactly a hundred years ago to serve the French-speaking population of western Switzerland by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who remained its chief conductor for almost half a century. It was Ansermet’s legacy that this programme celebrated, under its latest music director, the British conductor Jonathan Nott.

Jonathan Nott and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jonathan Nott and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Prom was framed by two of the greatest ballet scores commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, whose conductor Ansermet later became. Although both Debussy’s Jeux and Stravinsky’s Petrushka have long become staples of the concert repertoire, divorced from their original dramatic intent as vehicles for dance, the best performances manage to reflect both their Terpsichorean inspiration and their purely musical qualities. This was certainly the case with Debussy’s poème dansé, where the erotic undertow of the scenario’s three-way game of tennis was unmistakeable in Nott’s teasing out of the score’s orchestral fabric, its febrile, shimmering, sensual dreaminess beautifully projected by the OSR players. It was also easy to hear in Nott’s pacing and calibrated phrasing why the work was so venerated by the postwar modernists for its fluid approach to motif, melody and texture.

Petrushka was given in the composer’s original full-blooded 1911 version, quadruple woodwind and all, yet there was nothing bloated about the performance. Indeed, as with the Debussy, Nott gleaned a real transparency of sound from his players in an account that managed to be illustrative of the ballet’s narrative as well as being musically more than a patchwork of scenes. Rhythms had bite, tuttis were refreshingly bright and breezy and instrumental solos – flute, piano and trumpet in particular – had their own distinctive character while remaining true to the vision of the whole.

Renaud Capuçon and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Renaud Capuçon and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In between the two ballets came the UK première of an orchestration by French composer Yan Maresz of Ravel’s Violin Sonata in G major, commissioned by the Orchestre National de Lyon and first performed two years ago. As one of the few instrumental works of Ravel’s that he didn’t orchestrate himself, it is a work with a piano part ripe for such exploitation. The main issue is that the violin part – retained here intact – is not that of a concerto and was not designed to be heard above anything more than a piano. Maresz rightly keeps his orchestral forces in check, with plenty of chamber-like interplay and only really bringing everything together for the more virtuosic Perpetuum mobile of the finale. If he doesn’t exploit all the potential in the jazz-imbued central movement, and its thematic connections with the contemporaneous opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges and the slightly later pair of piano concertos, his orchestration here nevertheless points up the music’s allusions to blues and even big-band Gershwin. Renaud Capuçon, who had also given the Lyon première, gave a suave account of the weaving lines in the sonata’s opening Allegretto, dug in to the jazzy inflections of the central ‘Blues’ with wit and imagination and scorched his way through the busy finale, the orchestra playing the role of partner rather than rival.

Capuçon followed the Ravel with a generous encore of the Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, a serenely level-headed and unsentimental account, delicately accompanied by Nott and the orchestra. And the concert itself ended with the orchestra’s own encore, sadly nothing Swiss, but it was impossible to be disappointed by the choice of the finale of Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, something of a Nott speciality and a vibrant, glistening showcase for the OSR’s collective virtuosity.

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