Clive James – with as much modesty as a self-publicist can pull off – says, "all I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light." A similar ability enlivens the orchestration of masters such as Ravel and Falla. Viewing the amassed forces of the RSNO as they prepared to open with Alborada del gracioso (1918), it was difficult not to be struck by the seven-strong file of percussionists and wonder at the rhythmic bite they would surely add to this piano original from Ravel's Miroirs (1904-05). The jester's impishness, which pianist, Ricardo Viñes, would have had to inject into this Aubade's premier by means of articulation and tone, is enhanced by such orchestral decisions as allocating the sprightly opening theme to woodwind, accompanied by strings and harp. The playing throughout this work was crisp and joyous, under the animated baton of Stéphane Denève.

Kelley O'Connor © Dario Acosta
Kelley O'Connor
© Dario Acosta

In the pre-concert talk by Katherine Wren (a violist in the orchestra), and in Denève's personable chat to the audience, the topic of Frenchmen writing Spanish music arose. Listening to the Prélude à la nuit, from Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole (1907-08), which opened the second half, I found myself wondering whether growing up in the even speech rhythms of French might inform efforts to capture Spanish rhythmic vitality. However, once the more dance-like Malagueña and Habañera were under way, any such speculation disappeared. In any case, some faint praise after the première, the fact is that Falla was impressed by the piece – no further endorsement required. The work closes with a ebullient Feria, the energy of which the RSNO, and the audience, seemed to enjoy enormously. I also wondered whether orchestrating existing pieces, such as Alborada and Rapsodie, where form and content are a fait accompli, leaves the mind free to focus on the orchestral palate. Certainly these two early Ravel pieces shimmer like a sunlit stream.

Picking up the baton of sunny Iberian disposition, the programme ended with Suites 1 & 2 from Falla's The Three Cornered Hat. Originally a pantomime, this work seemed blessed from the outset. Persuaded by Diaghlev in 1917 to transform it into a ballet, Falla was, by the time of the London première in 1919, in the exalted company of Ballet Russes and Picasso. It is interesting to note that, assured as the composition surely was, Falla declined to conduct preferring the more experienced hands of Ernst Ansermet. Based on the novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and fuelled by driving dance rhythms and brilliant orchestration, the ballet unfolds a Brian Rix-style farce concerning a miller, a magistrate, their wives and back-firing pranks. The RSNO performed the Suites with infectious joie de vivre, in particular the eternally popular Dance of the Miller's Wife, Miller's Dance, The Neighbour's Dance and Final Dance (Jota.

Spanish in language but not in musical origin was the profound work in the centre of the programme – Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs (2005). The songs draw upon five of the Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets) which Chile's Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda wrote for his wife between 1955-57. Lieberson followed Neruda's dedicatory lead and his own wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, performed and recorded them. When she became ill with cancer, performances of these songs remained among the few uncancelled appearances. Joining the RSNO in the songs was mezzo-soprano, Kelley O'Connor, a friend of Lieberson. The sad backdrop to this particular performance was the news that Lieberson had died of lymphoma only six days before. The significance of the final song's title - Amor mia, si muero y tú no mueres (My love, if I die and you don't) – was felt by all present.

Even without these emotive extra-musical overtones, I feel that these songs, and this performance, would have touched the audience deeply. Despite Lieberson's modernist beginnings (he studied with Milton Babbit) the language is, as Paul Griffiths said in his excellent programme note “rapturous.” The scoring – much of it for strings inflected by woodwind colour – is sensitive and the sentimentality, into which a lesser composer might be drawn, avoided by compositional rigour and economy. The songs were beautifully performed by mezzo-soprano, Kelley O'Connor, and the communication between singer, conductor and orchestra was very moving. I would encourage anyone keen on the setting of poetry to explore this work.

At the end of the performance, while singer and conductor responded to heartfelt applause, Denève held the orchestral score to his chest as though embracing a dear friend. The music lives on.