As François Hollande's troop works hard to extend Greek life support, Pro-European dignité flies high in Paris at least. In Milan, however, French national pride reigned supreme tonight, with a beautifully crafted Bastille Day-celebrating programme that comprised, irresistibly, a combination of hidden gems and frequent references to wine. The musical territory covered here is vast, but La Verdi dispatched each of the works with panache under audience favourite Oleg Caetani. There is plenty of swagger to their playing at present – a Gallic cock with plenty of feathers in its tail.

Oleg Caetani © Oleg Caetani
Oleg Caetani
© Oleg Caetani

Opening the concert with an explosive expression of the tricolore, "Francia" is the next chapter of La Verdi's 24-part commission The Expo Variations from Nicola Campogrande. Tumbling trumpets and mutinous timpani build in avant-garde flecks, paring down to the wheezing notes of an accordion centre stage. The piece lends a coincidental homogeneity, or at least one that was subconsciously premeditated, to the programme in its entirety: Campogrande took his main theme from four notes of the French national anthem, only to realise that Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, scheduled for the same concert, uses the very same Marseillaise melody for its third movement shepherd call. Moreover, Campogrande had opted for the same instrumentation of oboe and timpani as Berlioz. Here was just one of the various gratifying connections between tonight's works. 

Following on were two musical postcards, penned by an Italian émigré and an Austrian adoptee respectively. Luigi Cherubini thrived when he moved to Paris in the 1780s. Napoleon granted him the Légion d'honneur, Berlioz became a difficult but gifted pupil and Beethoven earmarked him as the best composer of the day, purportedly writing Fidelio with a copy of the Florentine's rescue opera Les deux journées by his side. It was the overture to Les deux journées that we heard tonight, invested here with a stunning sense of proportion. Finely-balanced strings glowed, then darkened in the introduction's stormy rumblings – Mendelssohn writes of Cherubini's “clever and unexpected transitions” – before the clouds parted and joy radiated in crisp, scampering strings. 

In sharp contrast, Strauss' Wein, Weib und Gesang had all of the richness of a Viennese Sachertorte. The convivial celebration of wine, women and song brims with "Waltz King" melodies, typical of the sort that titillated Parisian high society. In this rendition, rich strings, lugubrious tempi and powdery cymbals congealed in a moreish melt. But there was wind in the sail too, Caetani's pirouetting gestures taking us from lyrical passages to an all-kicking Can-Can in the final waltz figure. A one time protégé of the formidable Parisian composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger, Caetani possesses sparkle and a glint in the eye. He moves with grace, steady yet free, with all of nobility of a Charles Darnay.

"Let's drink. Why wait for the lamps? Time is short. Lad, take the variegated cups." This jewel of a programme note from Greek poet Alcaeus was an apt introduction to Jacques Ibert's Dionysian Bacchanale. This rarely performed commission from the 1956 BBC Proms erupts in outrageous colour, recalling the Campogrande whilst prepping us for the Berlioz hysteria to come. A pecking stream of altercating clusters charges below, whilst groaning trombones and a furious xylophone form the topography. Like Berlioz, Ibert won the Prix de Rome early in his career. Those that recognise him as the dapper man from the photos, or the ambassadorial director of the Académie française (a study haven for Prix de Rome champions), will have been struck by the hedonism on offer.

There was no let up in energy for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. The real fun may be saved for the end of the work, but the earlier movements possessed a bewitching intensity. There was Proustian fragility in the first movement's portrayal of the swooning Artist, always on the brink of darkness, violins thinning to a trembling thread. The third movement's cor anglais and off stage oboe lacked colour for the shepherd's call, but there followed a deliciously balmy depiction of the "Scene in the Fields": more Riviera gusts than Normandy chill.

In the final two movements, The Artist's opium-induced nightmares built to frothing delirium. The "March to the Scaffold" sparked with brassy lashes, morbidly dancing bassoon and Viviana Mologni's rampaging timpani. So frequently a standout player at the Auditorium, she was joined by a raucous battery of percussion, one instrumentalist flinging himself at his bass drum during a blazing ascent from assembled forces with sulphur under the nose (the early entry that followed the almightily guillotine chop did little to curb our excitement). The fifth movement's witches' dance was dispatched with special resolve. By the time we reached the bubbling potion of spiccato strings, we were long under the spell of this thrillingly authoritative orchestra.

****1