It was a game of two halves from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Or a Scheherazade of two halves. French conductor Ariane Matiakh’s Proms debut featured not one, but two works inspired by The Arabian Nights: Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite, an orchestral showstopper, and Ravel’s rarely heard ouverture de féérie (rather than his “other” Shéhérazade, an evocative song cycle). On paper, an easy win for the Russian, but we all love a plucky underdog and it was the performance of the Ravel which hit the back of the net. 

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Ariane Matiakh conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Ravel was a huge admirer of Rimsky-Korsakov and heard the Russian conduct his Scheherazade at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. Its influence can be detected in Ravel’s overture, his earliest surviving orchestral work. Indeed, it was dismissed by the critic Henry Gauthier-Villars after its 1898 premiere as “a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School”. The eponymous storyteller has her own sinuous motif, initially heard on the oboe, and a second which Ravel claimed was inspired by a Persian melody. 

Matiakh, with a fluid, wristy baton technique, conducted a rich, heavily perfumed account, highlighting the debt to Rimsky. She whipped up plenty of brassy excitement early on and drew out piccolo flicks, contrabassoon gurgles and punchy bass drum thumps. It got the concert off to a terrific start.

Alas, Rimsky’s version did not fare anywhere near as well after the interval, given a wan rendition. Granted, principal bassoon Vahan Khourdoian played an engaging solo at the start of The Kalendar Prince, Matiakh giving him complete metrical freedom, but the rest of the woodwind playing lacked character and pungency. Untidy ensemble and a few brass blips seemed to play on everyone’s nerves and it wasn’t until the finale – an exciting storm and shipwreck – that things momentarily took off. The leader’s violin solos, depicting Scheherazade herself, sounded fragile. In The Arabian Nights, our narrator keeps the Sultan Shahryar hooked with her bedtime stories, successfully staving off her execution for 1001 nights. If Scheherazade had told her tales with such lack of conviction, she wouldn’t have made it past her wedding night. 

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Catrin Finch, Ariane Matiakh and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It would be nice to imagine that Sally Beamish’s Hive was inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee, but that’s fanciful thinking. Her harp concerto, written for Catrin Finch and given its world premiere here, depicts a hive through four seasons. Beamish's detailed programme note relates her music to hive life, acknowledging four bee experts on the way. The work is based on a narrative by her husband, the playwright Peter Thomson.

I think Rimsky would have relished Beamish’s orchestration. Indeed, it’s unusual in a concerto for some of the most striking writing to be for the orchestra: chilly vibraphone in winter, exuberant maracas in the bees’ “waggle dance” in spring; the stab of angry trumpets in summer, along with an insistent theme for cor anglais and two oboes when the new queens hatch; crotales and slithery double basses in autumn. In the opening movement, the harp is briefly joined by solo viola and flute, a combination made famous by Debussy in his late sonata. 

Finch was given some unusual effects, virtuosically dispatched, including drumming out a rhythm on the soundboard, but her playing was often confined to the instrument’s glassy upper reaches, glistening fiercely. There were times where her playing, even amplified, was submerged by the orchestra, but her ferocity of sound and buzzing lower strings were remarkably effective. Beamish's attractive work ends drowsily, the bees bedding down again for winter. No sting in the tail.