Prom 10 was a heady mix of Franco-Spanish music, from Debussy’s evocative Images for orchestra to Manual de Falla’s exotic Nights in the Gardens of Spain, all under the baton, appropriately, of Basque-born conductor Juanjo Mena, who takes over as Chief Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in September.

© BBC / Ben Ealovega
© BBC / Ben Ealovega

The three Images of Debusy – Gigues, Rondes de Printemps, and Iberia – were interlaced with Ravel’s exuberant Rhapsodie Espagnole and Alborada del gracioso, and Manual de Falla’s impressionaistic Andalusian concerto, Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

Gigues opened with an ethereal whisper, notes heard as if from far away, before mellow woodwind and translucent strings joined together with haunting yet recognisable snatches of the Northumbrian folksong, ‘The Keel Row’, lending a distinctly English flavour to Debussy’s score. Dancing, and lilting, full of folksy playfulness and humour, a little bumptious at times, with bright brass and crisp percussion, the piece set the tone for the evening ahead. The first half closed with Debussy too, the Rondes de Printemps, which, like Gigues, also begins with a single one, but one that shimmered with tremolandos and uncertain harmonies. Also based on folksongs (from France), this movement was more poignant, a little reserved at times, emphasized by a wistful clarinet solo. (The woodwind and brass sections were rightly given special applause for their very fine contribution to both these pieces – and indeed to the entire performance.)

Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole demonstrates the profound influence of the music of Spain on the French composer, and was his first major work for orchestra. Sexy and sultry, sweeping and romantic, the scoring of this work shows a great sense of colour and ‘story-telling’ in music. Conductor Juanjo Mena came to life in this piece, swaying, almost dancing on his podium like a practiced toreador, drawing the orchestra along with him in a shifting kaleidoscope of sound pictures, from the exquisite filigree detail of the Prelude a la nuit, through the swirling, haughty Malaguena, the teasing, sensuous Habanera, with its seductive ‘glissandi’ and purring woodwinds, to the ‘Feria’ finale, all castanets, restless twisting gipsy rhythms, and sense of abandon and debauchery. The percussion were particularly fine here: colourful and expressive.

The Alborado del Gracioso began life as a solo piano piece, one of the movements of Ravel’s suite Miroirs, and the orchestration is his. Like the piano original, the piece is sparkles with Ravel’s characteristic flair and brilliance: glittering harp and pizzicato strings offer a spiky opening before being joined by more melodious woodwind. This piece is less refined than the Rhapsodie Espagnole: it is at times raucous, at others mysterious and dark, with exaggerated musical parodies and hidden profundities (this music was composed after the First War, in which Ravel had served). Energetic rhythms, colourful flourishes, and fantastical woodwind flourishes round off this deconstructed waltz.

By contrast, de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain is more graceful, a calming triptych of movements after the excesses of Ravel’s Alborada. The piano part is elaborate and eloquent, but is rarely dominant, and is more integrated into the whole piece. Steve Osborne is a highly sensitive and technically brilliant pianist, but occasionally the piano part seemed a little flat, as if lost in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall. But at other times it sparkled with crisp articulation, or throbbing passages suggesting strummed guitars, laid over lush orchestration redolent of North African music, all swirling gypsy skirts, clicking heels, and fluttering fans.

The final ‘Image’, Iberia, which closed the concert, had a film-score lushness, with silky strings in its middle section, while the outer movements evoked bustling street scenes, people going about their business, the town waking with anticipation on the morning of the day of the feria. A naturalistic and vivid musical postcard.

****1