Expectations were high ahead of Bertrand Chamayou’s third concert of the 2023 Festival Ravel, especially so given the calibre of the artists who surrounded him; yet nothing prepared a packed audience for the musical banquet they were served. The pianist, in partnership with Vilde Frang and the Belcea Quartet, defied superlatives in their fiery account of a bona fide chamber epic, the 45-minute Concert in D major for violin, piano and string quartet by Ernest Chausson.

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Vilde Frang, Bertrand Chamayou and the Belcea Quartet
© Mark Valencia

Chamayou, as befits his status as the festival’s co-artistic director, launched the work with a bang. Three bangs, in fact – thwack, thwack, thwack on the keys – a device that Chausson borrowed from theatre: the trois coups that once called audiences to attention. That evocation was keenly appropriate here, since what followed was as dramatically gripping as it was musically riveting. That trio of notes travelled round the string quartet while Frang waited, every inch the star of the show, ready to make her entrance.

The haloed presence of Norway’s premier violin virtuoso begged several questions about Chausson’s unusual work. Is it a violin concerto for chamber forces? A double concerto for violin and piano? A violin sonata with obbligato strings? A piano sextet, pure and simple? In truth it’s all of those things at the same time, and that’s what makes it thrilling. The material is rich and expansive, on a par with the work’s ambitious structure and up there with the composer’s finest inspirations. The first movement explores many byways en route to its blissful close, and the six instrumentalists traversed the score’s delights as if dancing down a musical boulevard.

Chausson’s second movement is concise and irresistible: a Sicilienne of such lush, unbridled fervour that it was reprised at the end as an encore. That gave way to a movement marked Grave: a long-breathed melody that pulled back to the tonic whenever it threatened to stray into the danger. Jeopardy duly arrived when Chamayou’s piano figures grew increasingly threatening, bullying even, until a baleful crescendo emerged from the depths and a tutti of spectral figures drove the movement to its conclusion. The finale was led by Frang’s forthright violin as she launched a melody that began with a slinky swagger but collected itself once Chamayou’s dazzling piano runs had assumed the reins. The Belceas’ playing was especially ravishing here and brought the score’s Brahmsian spirit to the fore.

Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata for two solo violins is a huge work, almost as long as the Chausson, that Vilde Frang and the quartet’s leader, Corinne Belcea, negotiated with relish and technical brilliance. In the languid opening movement they traded tunes, played follow-my-leader and let the Belgian composer’s melodies intertwine sweetly as they teased the audience with the joy of their interplay. The stripped back Allegretto that followed gave way to a rewarding Allegro finale. Music of this work’s prolixity is not guaranteed to enthral and it will only succeed if the players are comparable in brilliance and musical insight – as was the case here.

Sandwiched between these two behemoths, Debussy’s beloved String Quartet in G minor was practically a miniature – in scale at least. Unsurprisingly, the Belcea Quartet’s playing of a work that has long been their calling card was characterised by ensemble playing of startling cohesion; it hardly mattered who held the solo line at any given moment because they all sounded as one. Whether hectic or rapt, their concentrated reading was simply, stunningly, immaculate.

Mark's press trip was funded by the Festival Ravel