It is telling that Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales were written before World War One and La valse afterwards. Ravel loved the waltz and its associations with the Viennese court, but after having fought on the Front against Germany and Austria, his feelings about the Viennese waltz had changed. Following the war, the opulence of the Viennese courts could never be returned to, turning La valse into a tribute to a lost past. 

These two orchestral waltzes by Ravel, then, offered a stark contrast. Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales is a fun piece. Though the work shifts from jolly to sombre, conductor Thierry Fischer ensured that it never became too serious. He was able to ride along with the waltz and allowed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to dance. Fischer’s playfulness meant that the faster, jollier waltzes were the most successful and he handled Ravel’s speed changes expertly. Particularly in the sixth and seventh waltz, Fischer brought out their humour, toying the BBC NOW as he pulled the tempo around.

Emmanuel Pahud © Sheila Rock | Askonas Holt
Emmanuel Pahud
© Sheila Rock | Askonas Holt

In the same programme as La valse, the frivolity of Valses nobles became a bleak reminder of what the waltz had been, making its loss in La valse all the more traumatic. The BBC NOW’s low strings and timpani that ominously opened La valse created an immediate threat. Slowly the full waltz began to emerge, eventually leading to its full arrival played by the whole orchestra. However in Fischer’s hands, what might have been a triumphant assertion of the waltz became a desperate grasp for the past. This waltz could never be real as it lay in the shadow of the powerful opening threat. The harsh interruption by the bass drum was inevitable, and it spurned the waltz’s panicked falling apart. Watching Fischer reign over the waltz’s descent into chaos was immensely unnerving, and it allowed him to bring out the underlying horror in Ravel’s work. Its loud, full orchestral close was not triumphant but painful, as the waltz and the threat of the percussion and brass were harrowingly juxtaposed.

A world première of Simon Holt’s flute concerto Morpheus Wakes was programmed between the waltzes. The work depicts Morpheus, the god of dreaming, “slowly waking from a deep, troubled sleep”. Though I was unconvinced by the music’s ability to reflect this programme, Holt’s work was nonetheless engaging, helped hugely by the virtuosity of flautist Emmanuel Pahud. He was captivating to watch especially during fast and rhythmically complex passages. Holt brought out the raw and primitive side in Pahud, and used his struggle to catch a breath for powerful dramatic effect. But the most effective aspect of Morpheus Wakes was its sparseness; in the first movement in particular, there were passages where only one or two instruments played a few notes with big rests in between. Every single note had its purpose and nothing was inserted merely as a fill in. Very occasionally, Holt inserted jabbing full-orchestral chords, but these were rare and brief. But nothing more was needed: their shocking concision was enough.

Shock was certainly not on the cards for Duruflé’s Requiem. The work is less about dramatic contrasts and more about maintaining a peaceful constancy from which moments of intensity can be built. Though there are moments of climax, their beauty stems from how they emerged organically. The end of the Kyrie, for example, grew in volume, leading to a full orchestral climax, but this progression was completely natural. Its volume was not brash or triumphant. Instead Fischer – with the help of the joint forces of the warm sound of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the National Youth Choir of Wales that gently filled the Albert Hall – continued the work’s holy air.

Soprano Ruby Hughes was fully on-board with the Requiem’s understated beauty in the delicate Pie Jesu. Though her magnetic stage and presence and exquisite voice put all attention onto her, it did not necessarily make the performance all about her. Hughes had a way of singing that felt as though she was singing to you personally. In her prayer for the dead, she found the balance between both the personal and universal.

With a dramatic first half and a reflective second, Prom 14 could have easily fallen into disparity. But Fischer and the BBC NOW could bend to whatever the music demanded of them, whether that was jollity, tragedy or tranquillity. Though the programme was largely restricted to 20th century French repertoire, Fischer and BBC NOW certainly proved that this music is far from one-dimensional.

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