BBC Symphony Orchestra/Josep Pons – Spanish Scenes

Danzas fantásticas
Siete escenas de Hamlet [UK premiere]
Rapsodie espagnole
El amor brujo

Ray Fearon (reciter)

Ginesa Ortega (flamenco singer)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Josep Pons

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 24 October, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In 1920, Danzas Fantásticas caused a sensation in Madrid. Turina had scored the jota (Aragon), the zortziko (Basque), the farruca (Andalusia) and hints of the gypsy flamenco for full symphony orchestra – thrusting a fiercely-preserved feature of Spanish culture into the West European mainstream.

Josep PonsUnder its visiting conductor – Josep Pons, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Orquesta Nacional de España – the BBC Symphony Orchestra produced lively, energetic sounds, together with reflective sobriety for the Ensueño (Reverie). A smooth symphonic swirl prevailed, however: the brazen Spanish swagger was missing; the biting rhythms of the folk dances were absent.

Clearly and engagingly, Ray Fearon read and declaimed each Shakespearean source for Siete escenas de Hamlet; the ensuing musical comment was unmemorable. Benet Casablancas’s style was mindful of Alban Berg, but with a lighter texture. The programme note refers to “careful manipulation of pitch within a rhythmic language of flexible musical prose.”

From time to time, the writing was poised to arouse interest, but then skipped on. The ghost earned ghostly music, but Hamlet’s fulmination against his mother’s remarriage fell short of outrage. Ophelia’s section was a lone flute, preceded by a plangent, subdued cello or violin – written rather to order. Osric’s skull unearthed macabre chords of dark strength, while the death of Hamlet tripped with light steps towards “The rest is silence’”.

Ginesa OrtegaThe concert’s second half opened with a mesmerising performance of Rapsodie espagnole, the BBCSO utterly confident of the stunning precision of Ravel’s musical ear and his expertise in inscribing exactness of instrumental colour. Right from the start, the Spanish flavour was proudly evident, presented with complete assurance. ‘Prélude à la nuit’ can drag – but, here, the potential beat of the sun-risen day’s splendour lay quivering in a silver-grey mono-tone .

What followed – from both Ravel and Falla – fully justified inviting Josep Pons as a guest conductor. He transformed the familiar music, turning it from smooth international into rugged Spanish. The orchestra gained swagger. It became magnificent, resplendent and outward-looking – glorying in its scorching beat and the virtuosic flamboyance of the orchestration.

It was good, too, to hear El amor brujo in full. Falla draws on a different soundworld from Ravel – abrasive, strapping and dark, like the Spanish-gypsy culture on which the work is based. ‘Dance of Terror’ ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ were savage and terrifying. Ginesa Ortega’s magnificent presence pealed with the blood and flame of love – and the savage reprisal which the gypsy maiden wishes upon her worthless lover’s ghost. Her voice has no sweetness; it has its own cadences; it is seer-like and strident, issuing roughly and starkly from the ruggedness of Granada and the Albaicín, from the very rock of the caves and the bare lives of the generations who gave her birth. This was Spain indeed.

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