French conductor Alexandre Bloch gave much more than a lick and a promise to these colourful but familiar works, firing up the imagination with shimmering imagery and a healthy sprinkle of fairy tale magic as he brought his impressive Orchestre National de Lille to Cadogan Hall in a mostly French programme to excite the senses and get the juices flowing. And while, clichéd though it is, it always feels somehow more satisfying to have French music played by a French orchestra, even in these days of the more ‘international’ orchestral sound, there was also a neatness in having a few fairy tales thrown in, particularly as they also originated from France. Even the obligatory Beethoven in his celebratory year had a touch of the Beauty and the Beast about it.

Alexandre Bloch and the Orchestre National de Lille
© Ugo Ponte | Orchestre National de Lille

Debussy’s evocation of the sea, Ravel’s children’s pieces and his dazzlingly fractured waltz full of sonorous intent were enough to make you drool. But Bloch didn’t do this purely through orchestral effect, but through meticulous detail, precision and balance, starting in the playground of our imagination with Ravel’s orchestratral suite version of Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose). Bloch is one of the most animated conductors you’re ever likely to see, but here he showed off Ravel’s more low-key and subtle side, with a lithe smoothness in the opening Pavane and bringing out the more delicate instrumentation and varied textures with cohesion. The transparency and accuracy of the strings was a real treat, alongside cosy woodwinds and a particularly rich horn sound, and a satisfyingly growling contrabassoon and soaring violin solo in the fourth piece (The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast).

The orchestral colour moved up a notch in Debussy’s La Mer, Bloch making the most of the ONL’s capacity to create unsettled effects through agitated strings, weaving woodwinds and agile brass and carefully picking out orchestral spectra in the composer’s constant shape-shifting, alternating between coldness and warmth and building turbulent undercurrents. Strained harmonic tensions against increasingly aggressive strings sweeping across the vista revealed a magical and mysterious layer of sound culminating in a thrilling climax.

After the break, Eric Lu gave a hypnotic and eloquent performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the piece that won him the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018. The ONL was at once intimate and majestic, erring more towards the big orchestral sound and slightly overpowering in parts of the first movement, although piano and orchestra were perfectly balanced in the wonderful development section. Lu has a maturity and elegance in his playing but with a steely core, showing effortless fluidity and a magical touch way beyond his years, contrasting accents pointedly placed with conviction. Lu’s hymn-like serenity in the second movement tamed the forceful strings with a calm reflection, and while the rather slow pace lacked some forward movement, there was subtle tension created before the bouncy frivolity of the Finale took shape and led to a flamboyant close.

Back to Ravel, and an electric performance of La Valse, one hundred years after its first performance. Bloch was more natural and intuitive in this piece, while still showing extreme clarity of detail amongst the dazzling illuminations of the composer’s distorted waltz. This was a kaleidoscopic reading – precise and luminescent – and the massed forces of the ONL were superbly controlled in their extreme recklessness as the piece reached its cataclysmic climax. Bloch chose the vibrant Feria from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole as the encore to “lighten the mood” – inspired!