Lionel Bringuier’s conducting debut with the Philharmonia was a definite success. Bringuier has a close professional relationship with the orchestra’s chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and he was received warmly by both orchestra and audience. The concert’s programme suited him very well and in the Prokofiev and Bartók, Bringuier proved himself to be particularly skilful at leading the orchestra in lively and powerful interpretations.

Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré
Lionel Bringuier
© Jonathan Grimbert-Barré

Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is still a highlight of late 19th century orchestral music, and the richness of its melodies and warm orchestral colour is still mesmerizing. This evening it received a solid but unimaginative reading that never quite took off. The Philharmonia’s woodwinds played exquisitely (in particular principal flautist Samuel Cole), and the orchestra sounded warm and lyrical, but some of the piece’s charisma was lost in Bringuier’s reading. Unfortunately that made his long pause after the piece was finished appear purely theatrical rather than a response to the emotional force of the music.

The performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major more than made up for any disappointment. Simon Trpčeski joined the orchestra in a performance that was impressive in every way. Part of this was certainly Trpčeski’s doing; an exceptional pianist, he appeared completely relaxed and simply to be enjoying the concert – while at the same time playing some immensely difficult passages. But the Philharmonia orchestra were also great – their timing was perfect and Bringuier measured the balance between the orchestra and pianist carefully.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 is a show-stopper. I always find its first movement to be a prime example of why clapping in between movements should not be frowned upon – there was a loud of audible shuffling after its rousing finale,  and I certainly had to make quite an effort to keep my hands apart! The second movement was overall no less impressive, although at times it was a little rushed, neither the orchestra nor Trpčeski ever lost control. The third movement, perhaps the most dazzling because of its stunning themes, was of equally high quality. With his light fingers forever dancing on the piano, it was truly thrilling to watch such a master at work; he brought out the playful elements of the piece while still doing justice to its more robust sections and its warmth.

Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was an immediate success at its 1944 première in Boston. Koussevitsky’s commission turned out to be a brilliant move, from which we still reap the benefits. Although Bartók never wrote a symphony, and this orchestral work may have the length and orchestra size of a symphony, but it truly is a Concerto for Orchestra in the tradition of Kodály (1940). The virtuosity required of the orchestral musicians as well as the emphasis on solos from different instruments and instrumental groups set it apart from traditional symphonies.

The Philharmonia were more than up for the challenge, and the musicians showed their virtuosity throughout the performance. Bringuier’s reading of the work was slightly faster than most, but with his careful eye (and ear!) he made sure the tempi were never excessive. Bringuier and the Philharmonia emphasized the work’s energetic and dynamic nature, their playing was passionate with an eye for detail – allowing the many melodies, dances, folk tunes and rhythms to shine one by one. Any hesitation I had at the beginning of the concert owing to the undistinguished performance of Debussy’s Prélude had disappeared to the back of my mind as I was leaving the concert hall. The Prokofiev and Bartók showed that Bringuier and the Philharmonia can really bring out each other’s strength, and I would hope that we will see them again on the same stage soon.