The BBC Proms’ 2014 theme of inviting orchestras from far-flung corners of the world looks unlikely so far to bring the highest musical values, but at least the concerts have a distinct national flavour. A week after the light-on-their-feet Chinese, here was a boldly colourful concert by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, the first to visit the Proms from Turkey.
The programme offered a many-sided snapshot of the Orient, as seen by composers of different periods and styles. The string players stood in Baroque fashion for Handel’s “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon. There was bright, trim playing in the Overture to Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, set in a Turkish harem. Holst’s atmospheric Beni Mora presents an oriental picture postcard by a British traveller abroad. Best, though, in this big hall was the suite from Respighi’s ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba, as glamorously over-the-top as any vintage Hollywood soundtrack to a biblical epic, and the Turkish musicians under their charismatic conductor, Sascha Goetzel, gave it their all. Playing generally was modest in standard, but always alive.
In the midst of this oriental travelogue came an interloper. Gabriel Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, “1914” – a BBC commission, receiving its premiere – is conceived as a diary of events from the opening year of the first world war. At over half an hour it is too long and its four movements are too similar, but it paints some vivid pictures along the way. Daniel Hope’s solo violin created an intense focus, against which battlefields are evoked in shattered orchestral landscapes of eerie high tremolos and sepulchral bass rumbles, but Prokofiev hits his most characteristic vein as marching rhythms accelerate till they reach the manic energy of the disco floor.
After this the late-night Prom offered calm and elegance. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have been occasional visitors from France over the years and this time brought a programme of three rarely heard “grands motets” by Rameau. One by itself might have made a bigger effect, as they were too much the same, but Rameau’s very French Baroque style, so quirky and highly expressive, is always welcome. Christie and his young singers handled it with as good grace as ever.