Prom 16 saw the return of the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales to the Proms, alongwith conductor Thierry Fischer, who was making his first appearance of the 2011 season, in a thoughtfully programmed evening. Earlier in the month, in Prom 4 the NOW had performed as part of the 100+ musicians on stage for Havergal Brian’s epic Gothic Symphony No. 1. Tonight would see them take to the stage alone to play a selection of more succinct pieces, the first of which was Berliozs Overture Le Corsaire.
The impactful opening quickly developed into a series of climbing and falling violins, quite pastoral in tone but ably supported by some purposeful brass. The piece succeeds as a musical depiction of life at sea, crashing waves represented by the brass, with soothing violins portraying calmer waters. The bustling energy of the finale would contrast markedly with the peace and serenity of the following piece, Faurs Pavane which in comparison sounded both humble and unshowy. A reduced orchestra gave a sympathetic rendition, equally graceful and nostalgic, perhaps registering as the most conservative part of the concert. Furthermore, its early associations with ballet would provide an additional, wider context for its inclusion in tonights programme.
For the third piece the Arditti Quartet joined the NOW on stage to perform the UK premiere of Pascal Dusapins String Quartet No. 6 Hinterland. His Morning In Long Island (Concerto No. 1 for large orchestra) had received its debut in an earlier Prom, gaining somewhat mixed reviews, and tonights string quartet would prove similarly challenging. It began with flickering shards of atonality from the Arditti Quartet, gradually subsumed into the sound of the orchestra. What then followed was a skilful interplay between the respective large and small ensembles, the focus being allowed to continuously shift back and forth. The forcible plucking of strings later on made for a taut, edgy sound. At times it was arguably a little overwrought but it still managed to retain an element of coherence and order.
The second half of the concert saw the NOW give a superb version of Stravinskys breakthrough piece The Firebird. The performance would go some distance to confirm it as a piece of two halves, the slightly fragmented early section being preoccupied with the establishing of themes whilst simultaneously being characterised by spiralling violins, placid flute and glistening harps. The positioning of members of the orchestra up in the gallery and within the stalls of the Royal Albert Hall was an effective move and it signalled a change in dynamic, the piece gradually becoming dominated by the primal, incisive brass and striking percussion. Up to now Thierry Fischer had been the epitome of measured calm, patiently shaping the sound of the orchestra, but now showed himself in more urgent, animated and exhortative mood. The NOW were also shown to be in excellent form as they imparted one final orchestral flourish before executing the thrilling climax with confidence and precision.