A rare sunny afternoon in Cardiff Bay was the ideal setting for this afternoon’s concert: an all-French programme in the intimate surroundings of the Wales Millennium Centre’s Hoddinott Hall.

© Sheila Rock
© Sheila Rock

Having long been overshadowed by the Rite of Spring (which received its premiere two weeks later), Debussy’s ballet Jeux has been unjustly neglected. In his final orchestral work Debussy reminds us why he is a master of orchestral colouring, opening with barely-there strings punctuated by droplets of harp together with horn.

In the medium-sized hall we were fully able to enjoy the warm sonorities and languid, descending thirds that characterised the work. The ‘games’ came later with scampering bassoon and leaping trumpet, the music being whipped up into a frenzy by insistent cor anglais and pizzicato strings.

The endless swerves and swells of Debussy’s score may have puzzled the Parisian audience who at first rejected the work, but for me this music had echoes of the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, with its drifting back and forth in and out of sleep, never fully conscious.

Next, the Flute Concerto of Marc-André Dalbavie received its UK premiere, finding an ideal advocate in Emmanuel Pahud who performed immaculately and with great flair. Cast in a single movement, the concerto opened with a primeval crash before launching straight into flashy arpeggios of astonishing rapidity. Pahud displayed great sensitivity to the imitative nature of the work, picking up trills from the orchestra, and vice versa. There was also a great deal of the Debussyian post-lunch languidity, played by Pahud with a silky-toned vibrato set against a more murky orchestral background.

In an emphatic conclusion Pahud hammered down on the flute keys, a special percussive effect then imitated by a marimba solo of mind-boggling virtuosity. Throughout the work the musical balls were being thrown back and forth in a quick-fire exchange that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the tennis match of Debussy’s Jeux.

After the interval we went from France to a more Spanish influence for Ravel’s Piano Concerto, performed by current BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Franceso Piemontesi. Deliberately intended to be a light-hearted concerto in the vein of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, the music also has echoes of American jazz, heard in the ‘blue’ note theme of the wind solos. The highlight was the painfully tender Adagio, which perfectly suited Piemontesi’s Romantic temperament. This was played with sincere feeling, the rocking left hand accompaniment perfectly balanced with a seemingly endless melody. But while he succeeded in the more dark-hued intimate solos, the finale’s return to the bustling city after this pastoral interlude lacked real excitement – the solo was sparklingly accurate but felt rather safe.

The Massenet scenes woke us from the slumber of this Spanish siesta with a forceful opening in the manner of a grand opera overture, the genre for which Massenet is best known. Where before we had vague impressionistic colours, now we were on more solid territory with pounding timpani and unison strings in clear-cut rhythmic blocks. The real fairytale character came in the third movement, ‘Apparition’, with its hazy strings and expansive horn solo, before a thrilling ‘Bacchanale’ led us to a breathlessly scurrying finish.