Orpheus taming the wild beasts: for years, this description of the slow movement in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was attributed to Franz Liszt. The strings growl angrily, the solo piano (Orpheus on his lyre) responds in soothing phrases until – eventually – the strings soften and are won over. In this performance though, the lions of Insula Orchestra didn’t snarl much at all, but rolled straight onto their backs, wishing to have their tummies tickled, leaving pianist Nicholas Angelich with a non-lion-taming scenario. This episode epitomised an all-Beethoven evening where Insula often lacked bite.

Insula Orchestra at the Philharmonie © Charles d'Hérouville | Philharmonie de Paris
Insula Orchestra at the Philharmonie
© Charles d'Hérouville | Philharmonie de Paris

The orchestra is a young period instrument band, founded in 2012 by conductor Laurence Equilbey and the Conseil départemental des Hauts-de-Seine. Many of its players are recruited from players graduating from European conservatoires. They’re still feeling their way as an ensemble and it rather showed here. The two opening chords of the Eroica Symphony were messy, with imprecise attack blunting the effect. The strings often failed to start notes precisely together, and often came off phrases a split-second apart too, giving a ragged impression. Equilbey must take her share of the blame – a clearer beat is required to inspire more confident playing. A slight figure on the podium, she makes small jabbing gestures with the baton, while her left hand urges on players, not always drawing the desired results.

Oboe tone veered towards sourness, while the principal flautist was often sharp (and rushed a couple of entries in the Scherzo). However, there were some pleasing things in Insula’s performances. Carles Cristobal’s bassoon – presumably a French model judging by its narrow bore and nasal tone – was full of character and timpanist Koen Plaetinck fired off a few explosive volleys in the funeral march. Four double basses, lined up at the rear of the orchestra, gave a spirited account of themselves in the Eroica, sawing away fervently, and three natural horns rallied the troops for a spirited finale.

Laurence Equilbey © Charles d'Hérouville | Philharmonie de Paris
Laurence Equilbey
© Charles d'Hérouville | Philharmonie de Paris

Where the “Héroïque” lacked élan, the Fourth Piano Concerto offered us humanity, largely through the warm playing of Nicholas Angelich. A moment before the performance, a stagehand dashed to the platform and laid a dog-eared copy of the score on top of the Pleyel fortepiano. Angelich didn’t touch it once, but perhaps its presence gave him spiritual assurance, for this was a tender reading.

If his battle with the orchestra was easily won in the second movement, he had a tougher time with the Pleyel which, though it produced a warm middle register, was remarkably uneven across its range. Cutting a slightly dishevelled figure in his crumpled suit, Angelich – eyes closed much of the time – carefully balanced the instrument’s sound. His trills towards the close of the first movement cadenza had meringue lightness.

The jocular Rondo vivace finale saw particularly good-humoured interplay with the orchestra: a dancing bear amid tame beasts. The storybook opening movement of Schumann’s Kinderszenen provided further evidence of Angelich’s warmth. Focused on the Pleyel’s warm middle register, it glowed.