Have you ever felt a sense of elation at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony? In many ways, I find the Fifth as intensely painful and autobiographical as the “Pathétique”, with the finale seeing the composer nobly ‘putting on a brave face’, accepting fate’s hand stoically. The last pages often play through a mist of tears, the triumphant march ringing helplessly hollow. Not so here. Han-Na Chang, conducting the Qatar Philharmonic in its BBC Proms debut, lit the biggest firecracker under the Allegro vivace of the fourth movement I’ve ever heard. It took me completely unawares – and judging by the scramble in the strings, possibly the orchestra too – as the movement raced away at lightning speed. Any sense of Tchaikovsky’s fragility and self-doubt were swept away in a joyous romp to the finishing line, epitomised by the timpanist, who seemed to be sitting on a trampoline, so high did his timpani strokes seem to propel him from his chair. Hence, the absence of tears, but broad grins all round.

Han-Na Chang conducting the Qatar Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Han-Na Chang conducting the Qatar Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Chang is known to most audiences as an extremely fine cellist (with two previous Proms appearances in this guise) but her conducting this afternoon was quite outstanding. Her style is often understated: small, precise beats and cues, much of it led from the wrist rather than the shoulder, with glowing beams of encouragement to her players. Her gestures grew more expansive in the Tchaikovsky, where tempo choices, shaping of phrases and application of rubato showed imagination. After a darkly lugubrious opening on clarinets, the Allegro con anima found Chang whipping up a maelstrom in the brass and timpani. The Andante cantabile was characterized by a gorgeously played horn solo. Brass often tended towards the excitable and raucous – there was no lack of passion in this exhilarating interpretation.

Further passionate Russian fare had come before the interval. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, still associated with the classic film Brief Encounter and buttoned-up emotions, found soloist Denis Matsuev in lyrical form, once past the ridiculously laboured sequence of opening chords which threatened to stall the concerto before it had even left the station. Chang gave the movement the propulsion it required, with some lovely, sweet string playing, particularly from the cellos.

Denis Matsuev © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Denis Matsuev
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Matsuev set a flowing tempo for the Adagio sostenuto, with much tender playing. A protégé of Valery Gergiev, he shares the maestro’s propensity to gruffly vocalise, singing his way through much of the Allegro scherzando finale. Steely fingers and lashings of rubato were in evidence in Matsuev’s encore – Rachmaninov’s militaristic Prelude in G minor Op.23 no. 5.

Of the orchestras making their Proms debuts this season, I’ve enjoyed the Borusan Istanbul and the Qatar Philharmonic the most. While the Borusan boast over 90% Turkish membership, making them a truly national orchestra, the inverse is probably true of the Qatar orchestra. Comprised of musicians from 30 countries, the number of actual Qataris seemed few and far between. Formed in 2007 and based in Doha, the orchestra is still in its infancy. Chang has only been Music Director for a year, but the partnership offers much promise.

To compensate in the way of regional colour, the concert opened with music by Iranian-born, American composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The Sunrise” is the third movement of Seemorgh, the first work in his Persian Trilogy. If the strongly tonal sound world conjures up Stravinsky’s Firebird (heard here only last Friday), then so does the subject matter. A newborn son (Zaal), abandoned by his father, is raised by a magical bird, the Seemorgh, which – on sending him out into the wide world – plucks one of her feathers and gives it to Zaal, telling him to stroke it whenever he needs help. Now where have we heard that before? Ranjbaran’s score is packed with incident, reaching a huge Scriabin-like climax. Terrific stuff, likely to prompt further investigation of his music. It could become a distinctive calling card of this fine young orchestra too.