French orchestral colour was the theme running through Thierry Fischer’s first Prom with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, from the subtleties of Henri Dutilleux through to the bluster of Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique.
Yet what became immediately apparent was a galvanizing of the orchestra, the relationship with their conductor seemingly rock solid even after ten months, and most evident in the Berlioz showpiece.
The performance was a touch uncertain at the start of Dreams, but thereafter it quickly found its stride. The violins surged forward, led energetically by Lesley Hatfield, impressing with their musical and emotive togetherness. Un Bal had a most appealing lilt, while the March To The Scaffold dug in and set a determined course. However the heart of this performance lay in the central Scéne aux champs, where the sense of colour Fischer had applied expertly in the first half came to the fore. Alison Teale contributed a beautiful cor anglais solo, while clarinetist John Cooper added a delightfully grotesque touch to the final Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat.
Fischer’s journey back through three generations of French music began with the intricacies of Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time, a Proms commission premiered nine years ago. The appeal of this performance lay in the detail, whether in the highly strung timpani, the sterling double bass work and the finely shaded, opulent textures. Fischer has a real flair for this music, its colour and its structure, and the central interlude where the three, almost disembodied choral voices enter was profoundly moving. His series dedicated to the composer next February will be well worth catching.
Pianist Roger Muraro joined the orchestra for Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto, a through composed single movement that brings out the darker side of his aptitude as an orchestrator. This is a good piece to see in the flesh, as it frequently amazes how a part written for one hand on the piano can be so athletic, and at the same time full of variety.
Muraro demonstrated this to best effect in the cadenza, which built from lightly brushed arpeggios through a big crescendo for the orchestra’s return. Colour was once again a strong feature of the opening, with reedy contrabassoon and double bass defining their extremely low music well, while Fischer and Muraro worked well together in structuring the piece, if not perhaps stressing much of its jazz and blues potential.
That said, Fischer presided over a wonderful concert, and even losing his baton in the audience during the Berlioz did nothing to put him off his stride. A sympathetic conductor, he has the potential to take the BBC Welsh Orchestra to new heights, building on this auspicious Proms debut.