With an overture by Berlioz, a concerto by Chopin and a symphony by Franck, French conductor Fabien Gabel had the challenge of constantly bring out something fresh in each of these works. They are often given the same label, of being 19th-century French Romantic pieces but, while there are obvious similarities in their approaches to orchestration, Gabel managed to make the most of the contrasting individual styles of each composer.

Fabien Gabel © Gatean Bernard
Fabien Gabel
© Gatean Bernard

Beginning in earnest with Hector Berlioz and his overture Le Corsaire, Gabel made full use of the opening frenetic strings to excite the appetites of the audience at Symphony Hall. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was in responsive form and in the following more subdued Adagio it brought about the sudden change of mood effortlessly. In many ways Le Corsaire is a bi-polar overture that swings and sweeps its way from hyper-energetic almost agitated passages to downright melancholy, and back again. This would seem to reflect Berlioz’s personality in many respects and Gabel managed to infuse the sound with a sense of human empathy with the highs and lows in the score.

For the most part I was equally impressed with the CBSO in Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor. The lengthy string-dominated introduction to the first movement Allegro maestoso was played with aplomb and I awaited the first sounds of the piano with great anticipation. Swiss soloist Louis Schwizgebel did not disappoint in his gentle touch. He produced a lovely lyrical dance, ballet-like, caressing the strings with the keyboard hammers yet maintaining crystal clear separation in the notes in even the most fleeting runs. As the piece progressed however, I felt that his interpretation was a little too subtle. While the beauty of his playing in the quieter passages was evident, the passion of the romance was less pronounced when playing at forte. The exquisite sonorous tone of the bassoon in the second movement, the Romance: Larghetto, also suffered by an uncharacteristic imbalance in the CBSO sound. I liked what I heard very much, but had to strain hard to hear it. The orchestral balance in the final Rondo: Vivace was restored, and Schwizgebel was able to demonstrate his considerable virtuosity. I found his playing to be very precise and the relationship between him and Gabel ensured that soloist and orchestra held tightly together in tempo and momentum throughout. Overall, I felt the concerto was played with just a tad too much restraint though, and when the orchestra burst forth into splendid fortissimo at the end of the concerto I wondered where all that power had been hiding in the meantime.

The second half of the concert was something of a revelation. I was very impressed with Fabien Gabel in his performance of the César Franck Symphony in D minor. He brought out lots of nuances in the orchestration that gave it an extra dimension, and his judgement of dynamic, mood and tempo were excellent. I have heard Franck’s Symphony many times in recording and in concert, but I have never heard it performed as vividly and vibrantly as by the CBSO on this occasion. The influence of two of Franck’s contemporaries was emphatically exposed by Gabel. The cyclical nature of the three movement symphony owes much to Camille Saint-Saëns, with the strong theme being passed from instrument to instrument, section to section, as seamless and effortless as a rugby ball in an All Blacks attack. And like that attack it keeps on coming in wave after wave throughout the first movement, and making a dynamic reappearance in the third, by which time I had developed an almost nostalgic longing for its return.

The influence of Anton Bruckner can be heard in the latter development of the main subject, with a mighty brass section being allowed to thoroughly enjoy themselves with gusto. Like Bruckner, Franck was primarily an organist and through the orchestration one can almost hear the piece being played on the organ in one’s imagination. The great benefit of this for the lover of orchestral music is the inclusion and employment of the whole orchestra. There were moments of prominence for many in the woodwind section including exposure for the cor anglais and bass clarinet, and of particular note was the performance of Elspeth Dutch on French horn. The organ’s influence was also clear in the brass orchestration that includes two cornets to accompany the trumpets. Not only were the individual performances strong, but Gabel managed to play the orchestra as one unit in a tight grip that he animated and enthused with a clear Gallic passion.