With barely time for coffee and baklava after the Orchestre Pasdeloup's Arabian matinee, I stepped boldly back into the harem. Scheherazade resumed her tales in the Philharmonie's Mille et une Nuits festival with the story of Aladdin, courtesy of Carl Nielsen, assisted by the excellent Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse under its music director, Tugan Sokhiev. It was the only work directly related to any of the characters from The Arabian Nights, but the rest of the programme of perfumed sweetmeats positively drooled with eastern promise.

Marianne Crebassa, Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse © Patrice Nin
Marianne Crebassa, Tugan Sokhiev and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
© Patrice Nin

The highlight was Ravel's song cycle Shéhérazade, performed by young French mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa. Although taking inspiration from the beguiling storyteller, Ravel was more concerned with evoking oriental atmosphere rather than anything more specific. He had intended to write an opera based on The Arabian Nights' stories, but only got as far as an ouverture de féerie – his earliest surviving orchestral work – which was not terribly well received, after which he abandoned the idea. A few years later though, he met the poet going under the magnificent Wagnerian pseudonym Tristan Klingsor, who had recently published a collection of poetry entitled Shéhérazade, itself inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite. Ravel also admired Rimsky and decided to set three of Klingsor's poems to music.

Crebassa proved an ideal interpreter, her voluptuous mezzo as richly plum-coloured in her lower register as her purple gown. She was highly responsive to Klingsor's exotic texts and able to glide effortlessly to airy high notes. Asie, the longest of the three songs, describes the poet's desire for the enticements of the east. Crebassa imbued the repeated lines starting “Je voudrais voir...” with an increasing sense of intoxication and breathless excitement, as the list of items in her reverie ranged from slender minarets and silk turbans to viziers and the executioner's curved sabre. In La Flûte enchantée, Crebassa was ably serenaded by the languorous golden tone of principal flautist François Laurent. L'Indifférent was simply as seductive as you could wish for.

Nielsen paints the Orient using a bolder palette than Ravel in his Aladdin, primary colours daubed across the score. The opening march packed a marvellous punch, the Toulouse brass on imposing form. The double bass section was just as impressive, particularly in the fiendish col legno section to accompany the xylophone's gyrations in the pounding Moorish Dance. Percussion shimmered in Aladdin's Dream, while Sokhiev skilfully cued the four different groups whose chants and fanfares crunch against each other in the evocative Marketplace at Ispahan. Sokhiev clearly enjoys a great rapport with his orchestra, exchanging beaming smiles with leader Sergey Levitin through much of the evening.

Strauss' Salome is hardly Arabian Nights fantasy, but the erotic abandon of The Dance of the Seven Veils opened the second half spectacularly, Chi Yuen Cheng's oboe especially tempting, before a vivid account of Stravinsky's 1919 suite from The Firebird in which Sokhiev micro-managed every detail superbly. The complete ballet can have its longueurs but in this filleted version we whistle through the fairytale at feverish pace. Spitting violas and filthy trombones gave Kastchei's Infernal Dance demonic power while the hefty bass drum helped drive a triumphant finale. The ONCT is clearly in excellent shape under Sokhiev, emphasised by more ravishing Ravel and boisterous Bizet as generous encores. A fabulous evening of storytelling. 

*****