At this season's Grange Festival, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is in the pit for Annabel Arden's new production of Carmen. The first half of this concert could easily have been a rehearsal. Beneath the garish burnt orange panels of Basingstoke's Anvil, violinist Alexandra Soumm, dressed in a striking scarlet gown which would grace any traditional staging of Bizet's classic, was the soloist in Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. Her reading was boldly operatic, from earthy mezzo G-string recitatives to coquettish teasing.

Alexandra Soumm © Benjamin Ealovega
Alexandra Soumm
© Benjamin Ealovega

Lalo composed this concerto in all but name for the great virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, the first performance taking place in 1875 just a month before the première of Carmen. Spanish character oozes from every bar. Soumm's tone had plenty of weight in an opening movement full of dark, sultry utterances, but her softer playing entranced too, the Scherzando taunted kittenishly with its snapping steps and laughing trills. In the Intermezzo, she seemed to be playing both characters in an operatic duet before finding the emotional heart of the work in the Andante. There was no tragic end for this Carmen; Soumm directed the rondo's flirtatious phrases towards conductor James Gaffigan – enough to make any Don José blush! It was exuberant, joyous music-making, the Bournemouth players happy to join in the fun.

This sunny slice of Seville formed the centrepiece of a programme that completely lived up to its seductive “Exotic Spice” billing. The other two works – Debussy's erotic Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Rimsky-Korsakov's Arabian Nights fantasy Scheherazade – particularly benefited from being heard in the splendid Anvil acoustic, far finer than any of London's larger concert halls. The sound is warm, but not overly reverberant, and every instrumental detail registers, from Eluned Pierce's dramatic harp flourishes, as Scheherazade weaves her tales, to the Faune's antique cymbals, struck by two percussionists and gently shaken to allow their fragile chimes to waft and decay. 

Gaffigan took a relaxed approach to the Debussy, giving Anna Pyne free rein to lovingly shape her beguiling flute solo. This was a Faune in full languorous mode, completely unhurried, time very nearly standing still in its magical coda. After expertly balancing and blending Scheherazade's long woodwind chords that follow the Sultan's brassy growls, Gaffigan again trusted his Bournemouth principals in the Rimsky-Korsakov, allowing them to shape and phrase their great solos unhindered. Tammy Thorn's bassoon at the start of The Tale of the Kalandar Prince was eloquently voiced, echoed by Edward Kay's deftly turned oboe response. Liz Drew's clarinet was especially dainty as the third movement's princess in her palanquin.

Leader Amyn Merchant was an engaging storyteller as Scheherazade herself, whose poetry was matched by Jesper Svedberg's cello phrases as Sinbad's ship rolled on the high seas. I liked the way Gaffigan segued into the second movement, our narrator eager to spin her tale (and stay her execution). The brass had plenty of heft, without being over-dominant, with some fabulous trumpet articulation. But this was a highly dramatic reading too, Gaffigan making scything baton slashes in the swashbuckling drama of the finale, with ear-splitting percussion as the ship splintered in the tempest, the skin very nearly beaten from the tambourine's frame! Voluptuous repertoire, great acoustics and terrific playing – as concerts go, this was the perfect storm.