Scheherazade had to spin her tales out for 1001 nights to earn a stay of execution from the Sultan Shahryar's wicked decree that each new wife shall be killed the morning after their wedding. This weekend, she only needed to manage three nights at Paris' Philharmonie, where music inspired by the Orient – The Arabian Nights especially – formed the basis of its Mille et une Nuits festival.  

Geneviève Laurenceau © Yvan Schawandascht
Geneviève Laurenceau
© Yvan Schawandascht

Nighttime storytelling would be problematic for the Orchestre Pasdeloup. The oldest orchestra in Paris, formed in 1861, it only gives matinee concerts, attracting audiences who don't always want to come to an evening performance. Despite the attractions of a concert by Les Siècles in the Philharmonie's second hall scheduled for exactly the same time, there was a strong turnout (of all ages) for a flying visit via magic carpet to the bazaars and harems of Arabia under the alert eye of Polish conductor Marzena Diakun

Our first stop was more Mediterranean than eastern, Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, the orchestral transcription of which was premiered by the Pasdeloup in 1919. Immediately, the strengths of this orchestra became apparent: the very young woodwind section plays with great charm, especially the mournful bassoon solo, while the lower brass is admirably sturdy. Not so the principal trumpet, who garbled his staccato fanfares, but Diakun led a jubilant, effervescent performance.

Fazil Say's violin concerto, subtitled “1001 Nights in the Harem” is loosely connected with Scheherazade's tales. It is in four movements, which alternate between the slow and hypnotic to fast and frenzied, the movements connected by a solo cadenza. Geneviève Laurenceau had the full dynamic range from fragile wisp of sound to a ferocious roar at her disposal, but the work itself is something of a disappointment. There are some attractive musical ideas, but the concerto is arguably too long for its limited material, with much repetition and note-spinning.

The work's Turkish influences are evident via a range of percussion instruments, the kudüm and bendir, tapping out their insistent rhythms. The third movement is a variation on a traditional Turkish song which constitutes the most attractive musical idea in the entire work. Say writes that the second movement is “in effect a party night” but, despite lively percussion, it hardly rocked the kasbah. Laurenceau's encore of Grażyna Bacewicz's Polish Capriccio, terrifically played, packed more incident into its three minutes than in the half hour concerto.

The Pasdeloup trombones impressed in the opening phrases – Shahryar's imposing decree – of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. It is probably the best-known work based on The Arabian Nights, even if the composer didn't intend his four movement symphonic suite to depict specific stories. The book's framing device of a brave young woman risking death by telling stories to entertain and amuse her bloodthirsty husband is clearly depicted by Rimsky though, via a solo violin. The Pasdeloup's leader, Arnaud Nuvolone, brought plenty of sinew to his storytelling. A tentative horn solo in “The Sea and Sinbad's Ship” and a string ensemble that was not always tightly together mattered little when Diakun drove the performance so vividly with her vertical baton slashes. Woodwinds again shone, bassoon and oboe shaping their soliloquies engagingly in the second movement tale of “The Kalandar Prince”, while the shipwreck in the finale was taken at an exhilarating tempo to close this particular chapter in the Mille et une Nuits. As Scheherazade herself would say: to be continued...