For the final lunchtime chamber recital of the BBC Proms season, a detour from autumnal London for Paris and a menu of Gallic fare from the Berlin Philharmonic Soloists. From lightly seasoned miniatures by Lili Boulanger to classic dishes peppered with harp from Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, they offered an attractive programme, given added spice via a new commission from Nina Šenk.

The Berlin Philharmonic Soloists © Mark Pullinger
The Berlin Philharmonic Soloists
© Mark Pullinger

Lili Boulanger – like Debussy – died in 1918, but at the tragically tender age of 24. As this Proms season has demonstrated, she was quite a remarkable young talent and we can only speculate what she may have gone on to have composed. We heard the lighter side of Boulanger’s output here, Alasdair Beatson handling her Trois morceaux for piano with delicate care, a pair of garden-based pastel washes rounded off with an unlikely jaunt to the concluding Cortège. Her Nocturne for violin and piano is a cool affair, flecked with pale moonlight. Maja Avramović warmed the mood with gentle vibrato and a dusky lower register.

That most French of instrumental colours, the harp, played a central role in the rest of the programme. The early 20th century saw “harp wars” between makers Pleyel and Érard, commissioning works to demonstrate their superior brands. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane showed off what the Pleyel chromatic harp could do, spurring Érard to engage Ravel whose Introduction and Allegro was written to showcase its new double-action pedal harp. It’s practically a mini concerto for harp and it couldn’t have won a finer advocate than Marie-Pierre Langlamet. After much careful retuning, she lavished Ravel’s score with glittering, pinpoint precision, demonstrating tremendous dynamic range in her cadenza. Emmanuel Pahud and Wenzel Fuchs provided haunting atmosphere to the flute and clarinet-led opening bars, which the string quartet of Berlin players offered muscular support.

Nina Šenk’s Baca – composed for the same forces as the Ravel – is based on the process of glassmaking, linking with the concept of a “glass ceiling”, especially apt as it’s one of the Proms commissions to promote new works by female composers. From gritty seeds – pizzicato pops and slap-tonguing – Šenk gathered a number of fragmentary ideas, only for the result to burn too briefly before a spluttered end.

The highlight of the recital was its one true masterpiece. Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp was part of a projected series of six sonatas for various instruments the composer set his mind on in 1915. Only three were completed before his death (the sonatas for violin and cello being the other two). In combining flute, viola and harp in such an atmospheric way, Debussy paved the way for a number of works featuring this instrumentation. Although there is no programme, the eroticism of Ancient Greece, with its tales of lusty Pan chasing after frolicking nymphs and dryads, is never far away, even if Debussy paints behind a gauzy screen.

Tearing that screen away, Pahud, Langlamet and viola player Amihai Grosz gave a vivid rendition. Pahud applied plenty of steel to his velvet tone, serenading over Langlamet’s crystalline cascades. Grosz’s sinewy viola growled and pawed, deliberately scuffing the textures, contributing to an earthy rendition.

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