Prom 15 Review: The East Unveiled

★★★½

Anu Komsi soprano
Piia Komsi soprano
Meng Meng soprano
Jia Li pipa
Jing Chang zheng
Nan Wang erhu/banhu

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Lesley Hatfield leader
Xian Zhang conductor

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For Central Europe, Russia has always represented a gateway to the Orient, and has traditionally been the point where the East meets the West. It was therefore an excellent decision to pair two Russian works with Qi Gang Chen’s Iris dévoilée: a unique musical blend of Chinese and Western European styles.

The first movement of the Prokofiev started briskly, but delicately. The texture was wonderfully transparent, allowing us to hear each individual part ticking away like clockwork. At times however it was too delicate, and it didn’t really pop in the way that a good Classical Symphony should – that is the attacks and sforzandos fundamentally lacked an edge to them. The orchestra brought out a daintiness in the Larghetto, with a warm sound from the cellos and basses. By contrast the Gavotta was a little more rambunctious. Here Xian Zhang pulled the tempo around in a fluid and daring manner. In the last movement the winds bravely tackled perilous broken chords and the orchestra treated us to moments of genuine surprise. Overall the performance seemed to lack a fundamental confidence, despite the ferocious energy Xian Zhang was pumping into them. As a result the innately boisterous character of the music was at times muffled, sounding in places more nervous than cheeky. Still the orchestra boasted sweet solo playing from the flute, and an impressive accuracy within a symphony notorious for its need of nimble fingers.

This busy and somewhat hyperactive music gave way to Qigang Chen’s much more expansive Iris dévoilée. In this work Chen takes the “Iris” to be the personification of femininity, and makes “femaleness” his subject. The work’s nine short movements all seemed to represent different facets of femininity. Euphonious perfect fifths and added note harmony found in Ingénue and Voluptueuse were contrasted with piercingly high clusters in Hystérique and Jalouse. Microtonal, spectral sounding harmonies were found in Pudique and Jalouse, and pentatonic scales were rife at the start of Sensible. Movements were differentiated through varied rhythmic characters: Libertine and Hystérique were among the most driving in tempo, with sharp-edged syncopations, whereas Ingénue and Voluptueuse retained a spacious, timeless atmosphere.

Chen’s imagination with respect to orchestration was shown to be boundless in Iris. By including traditional Chinese instruments, sopranos and a singer intoning in Peking Opera style, Chen was able to expand the Western orchestral palette to suit his needs. Lush harmonies were matched with resonant bell-like timbres, and extended techniques expanded the orchestral palette further. Timbral colours were at times reminiscent of Ravel and, in harsher moments, Ligeti. However it was in the blending of these timbres that Chen truly shone. A single G in Mélancolique passed seamlessly between Er Hu, soprano, muted trumpet and then violin. It was this score that the orchestra performed best, playing with awareness of balance and total ensemble. Each soloist was faultless, and the rich tone of Nan Wang’s Er Hu was especially beautiful. The boldness of soprano Meng Meng was also commendable: not everyone understands the Peking Opera aesthetic.

The evening was topped off with passionate performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor. The first movement had a great direction and pace, and Xian Zhang drove the orchestra at breath-taking velocity when required. Lesley Hatfield’s solo playing had a lovely projection and beauty, and the strings in general showed real commitment as they whipped themselves into a bloodthirsty frenzy. The movement powered on to a close, and the last E minor thud pulled no punches. The orchestra careered onwards into the second movement, which again had a fantastic vitality. This was by far the best movement, with warm basses, a stunning horn solo, rich creamy textures in the long melody, and energetic, dry muted trumpets. The imitative string entries were ferocious and precise.

It was in the third and fourth movement where the performance started to sag. Here Xian Zhang’s climaxes didn’t have any sense of gradation, and after a while the passion she exuded began to feel superficial. The fourth movement erupted forcefully but was unfortunately untidy. Aside from the second movement there were both ensemble and balance issues throughout. Though the brass section was on point and together with itself, it frequently of sync with the rest of the orchestra and too loud. Doubled melodies there should have had a much stronger bottom octave, and countermelodies were all too often lost. Still, Xian Zhang drove the final movement to an epic close, encouraging rapturous applause from the audience.

Although the high standard could not be maintained throughout the entire evening, the audience was presented with patches of sheer wonder and elation. It was a pleasure to hear a rather unique Proms programme that bridged East and West.

Cover photo copyright Ugo Ponte