Poor Ravel: even in death his significant talents are overshadowed by Debussy. Barely had the ink dried on his orchestrated Rapsodie Espagnole before it was eclipsed by the emergence of his iconoclast friend and rival’s equally Hispanic-tinged suite Iberia and, over 90 years on, the programme notes to Prom 48 contain a detailed discussion on whether Ravel’s legacy has been obstructed by his contemporary’s enduring success. Although lacking Iberia’s all-round finesse, Ravel’s attempt at painting the more contemplative moments of a Spanish fiesta is replete with his usual first-rate orchestration, and was here given the recognition it deserves as the opener for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Prom, led by composer-conductor and artist-in-association Matthias Pintscher.

Tine Thing Helseth and BBC SSO © Photo by Clive Barda
Tine Thing Helseth and BBC SSO
© Photo by Clive Barda

The Sunday evening atmosphere in the Hall was slow in taking off, received by an audience that seemed to be afflicted by early-onset Monday blues and prone to ostentatious bouts of coughing in between movements. Apparently sensing this initial unrest, the orchestra’s approach to the Rapsodie was cautious and lacking in rhythmic drive. Cor Anglais player James Horan did, however, deliver some extremely well-phrased solo passages in the final movement.

Pintscher’s own double trumpet concerto Chute d’Etoiles was the centrepiece of the evening, receiving its London premiere. Pintscher’s ambitious piece was bogged down by a lofty-sounding programme. Inspired by an art installation by Anselm Kiefer that appeared in Paris’ Grand Palais in 2007, it deals with themes of the cosmos and the collapse of the universe. Such an all-encompassing brief was always going to be difficult to fulfil, and I’m not quite sure that Pintscher delivered it.

Pintscher is not afraid to use silence. However, silence is unfortunately not what the Royal Albert Hall was built for. Some of the quieter passages – of which there were many – were virtually inaudible, and the meticulously-crafted interchanges between the two trumpets were sadly lost. Soloists Tine Thing Helseth and Marco Blaauw did their best to snatch the numerous pianissimo figurations and trills back from the ether but were ultimately fighting an unwinnable battle against the cavernous auditorium. This was a real shame, as the two melodic lines contained some intriguing material.

The second section was more successful, with the disjointed cells of the earlier music giving way to a fuller, more robust metallic sonority that tallied perfectly with Pintcher’s aim to emulate Kiefer’s lead-based sculptures in sound. Too fragmented to truly be labelled a crescendo study, the piece felt slightly lopsided and I felt the discrepancies between the intimate and the monumental could have been more deftly handled. Nevertheless, there was a pleasing eeriness to the scoring throughout, and an element of kitsch that suggests a playful sense of humour on Pintscher’s part – the doom-laden descending brass lines and shrill repeated downbows were pure Hammer horror. As the piece developed, I could not help but be reminded of the opening minutes of Boulez’s Pli selon Pli – certainly no bad thing.

Pintscher deserves credit for some clever programming: the composer had Stravinsky in mind when he began work on Chute d’Etoiles and, accordingly, this new work was followed by the Russian titan’s first ballet score, The Firebird. This was a solid rendition, and Pintscher’s decision to place some of the brass section on the other side of the auditorium added a layer of drama to that which is inevitably lost when ballet music is performed alone, as well as capturing the “dialogue” between Kaschei and Ivan very well indeed. The evening ended with a valedictory upbow – a confident end to an enjoyable evening.

***11