Picture an artist standing at an easel, paint-brush in hand, about to apply colour to the canvas. As an image, not so very different from a conductor, baton in hand, about to bring colour to orchestral textures. This analogy came to mind as I watched Elim Chan, here conducting her first Prom with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, guiding the listener through Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s original piano work, Pictures at an Exhibition. She would lean in towards her players, giving neat cues, using her arms to animate and galvanize, transferring kinetic energy into a spectrum of colours.

Elim Chan conducts the BBC NOW
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Mussorgsky visited a retrospective exhibition of 400 works by his close friend Viktor Hartmann and drew on some of these pictures for inspiration. The suite was originally entitled Hartmann, testament to the powerful impressions made on the composer, and driving him to a feverish state of excitement: “Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled – sounds and ideas hung in the air.” Inevitably, in this performance some pictures came to life more successfully than others. Gnomus emerged suitably arthritic and hidebound, with dramatic details from the brass and percussion highlighting the underlying menace; there was a good terracing of dynamics and depth of tone from the lower brass in Catacombae; the penultimate Baba Yaga had an angry cutting edge, horns ringing out, and emphasising the rawness of the original conception. But this was Ravel’s orchestration and the French influence was sometimes underplayed. In Tuileries the chattering woodwind needed to be sharper, and both in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and Limoges, lightness and precision were in short supply. There were unfortunate lapses, both individually and in ensemble: the opening string unison passage in Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle was not together, nor was the tread of the lower strings quite vigorous enough in Bydło.

Whereas the judicious application of bright primary colours and attention to sunlight and shadows served Chan well in the world of Russian music, there was almost a surfeit of gloom and becalmed sea in Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides. Flecks of colour emerged from the respective pair of trumpets and horns, with the timpani suggesting the thunderous approach of rain, but where were the surges of a mighty sea, the spray flying in all directions?

On either side of these two works the evening gave welcome prominence to Catriona Morison, winner of the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Errollyn Wallen, whose intriguingly named work This frame is part of the painting was receiving its world premiere, acknowledges the inspiration she gained in 2015 from seeing the studio of the artist Howard Hodgkin and experiencing the emotional force of his paintings. The text she created to underpin this short work is largely her own, making use of playful elements – “I feel a painting coming on” – and linking into the pictorial theme of this concert evening with a list of tints such as Yellow Lake, intense hues like Cadmium Red Light and the deep cobalt undertones of Prussian Blue. Powerful colours and powerful orchestration, but arguably too much so. Listeners at home may well have had a better sense of balance thanks to the efforts of the BBC engineers, but in the hall even Morison’s valiant efforts failed to stop her voice frequently being submerged by a relatively large and dense orchestra.

Catriona Morison, Elim Chan and the BBC NOW
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

She was heard to much better advantage in Elgar’s Sea Pictures. These five songs may not have the overall coherence of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, but their quality was recognised by none other than Mahler, who conducted them in New York in 1910. Morison has an impressive evenness and steadiness of tone, with seamless transitions from her upper reaches to the deep chest notes which the composer requires in the third song, Sabbath morning at sea. Here, his favourite marking nobilmente, together with glittering solos from the leader and harp as well as the additional heft provided by the optional organ part, emphasised the richness of the writing. In turn, Morison’s voice opened up opulently at its close.

Morison not only has the vocal lustre to command attention, she demonstrates the significance of clear diction. If her singing was emotionally a little on the cool side – I missed a sense of wistfulness in Where corals lie – restraint sometimes repays dividends in Elgar.

Chan, as was the case in the Wallen work, dispensed with her baton and used her hands to expressively sculpt the air in sympathetic support. She gave particular prominence to darker daubs of colour from the horns, both in the opening Sea Slumber-Song and in the concluding The Swimmer, where the sea is whipped up by a ferocious tempest and the “brave white horses” linger in the memory long after the storm has subsided.