This was the story of an Italian conductor, an Israeli mandolinist and the creation of an authentic Mediterranean tableau. Engaging conductor Daniele Rustioni conjured up a refreshing musical fresco, with splashes of Italian flair, French frisson and a gentle dusting of the Middle East, taking us from The Arabian Nights to the pine trees of Rome in an exotic mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. En route, Rustioni’s travelogue followed a less conventional route, taking us through the backstreets of the Mediterranean rather than through postcards of famous musical landmarks, and there were a couple of real finds too.

Daniele Rustioni © Davide Cerati
Daniele Rustioni
© Davide Cerati

Ravel’s rarely performed Shéhérazade, Ouverture de féerie opened the concert. This was the composer’s first foray into orchestral repertoire, and although not one of his more popular works, there are still plenty of clues in this piece that point to the composer’s latent talent. Shimmering textures and exotic orchestration permeate the work, with a glistening sheen overlaying wisps from the woodwinds, rippling harps, muted strings and cogent trumpet interjections. Rustioni carried out his task with care and conviction, shaping the swathes of instrumental colour expertly into carefully folded episodes.

Avi Avital is a latter day minstrel. Adopting the mantle of the 19th-century mandolin virtuoso, he roams the land bringing his music to the people. On this occasion he presented his compatriot Avner Dorman’s 2006 Mandolin Concerto in what was, remarkably, its first London performance. From the meditative, tremolo opening to the subdued ending, the captivating and virtuosic Avital navigated his way skilfully through the shifting shapes of this absorbing piece, picking intricately and strumming against hazy glissandi, ghostly harmonics and hints of nostalgia, and employing a range of unusual techniques, while parading a central dance-like movement full of verve and vibrant Middle Eastern flavours. It was all brilliantly performed, and Avital’s encore, a piquant and passionate Bulgarian folk dance, could equally have been performed on a stage at Glastonbury.

Giorgio Federico Ghedini, a one-time teacher of Claudio Abbado and Luciano Berio, is one of a number of important 20th-century Italian composers who seem to have slipped beneath the radar, and his 1947 work Musica notturna was given its long-awaited UK première – a travesty that it took so long. Rustioni wrung out every ounce of tension in Ghedini’s dark, strained harmonies which teetered between dissonance and consonance, with dense textures and intense chromaticism interrupted occasionally by moments of diatonic clarity. This was a sublime performance, complete with a brief harpsichord-like cameo from Avital on mandolin, both conductor and orchestra fully immersed in the nocturnal mysteries and coldness created by Ghedini, and the piece certainly deserves a bigger seat at the table.

Respighi’s second and most popular of his three “Roman trilogies”, The Pines of Rome, had Rustioni and the extended forces of the BBCSO playing with a buoyancy and vitality like there was no tomorrow. It was a performance crammed packed full of colour and adventure, burgeoning from the skittish and joyful scenes of children playing at the Villa Borghese, through the sombre timbres and religious undertones of the catacombs and the calm of the nocturnal Janiculum Hill (complete with recorded nightingale song) to the imperial splendour of the march along the Via Appia. Apart from a slight lack of definition amongst all the fervour, there were otherwise some stand-out moments, in particular the coolness of the rippling piano and celesta and gentle clarinet solo in the third scene, a wonderful cor anglais solo and the magnificence of the nearly over-the-top climax. This sonic sensation was the final flourish in a programme that had the BBCSO on tip-top form, and Rustioni, with his infectious enthusiasm and animated presence on the podium, imbuing impressive musicality throughout.

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