St David’s Hall’s International Concert Series continued tonight, transporting the audience on a journey around Europe. This was the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse’s debut performance in Cardiff, and their first tour of the UK. The prestige of this orchestra in France (recently described as one of the finest symphony orchestras in the country, and frequently performing at sold out venues) does not seem to have trickled into British consciousness, but undoubtedly will do so over the course of their tour.

Tugan Sokhiev © Patrice Nin
Tugan Sokhiev
© Patrice Nin

The programme could not have been more fitting for an unexpectedly sultry March evening. François Laurent’s effortless, expansive flute solo opened the concert with one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-4). Inspired by French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé’s poem of the same name, Debussy’s piece effectively evokes imagery from the text, despite his claims that the Prelude is not a programmatic work. Rather, the listener is aware of a succession of scenes, starting with the warmth of a spring afternoon where a somnolent faun dreams of two nymphs. Although this piece has become a standard of the orchestral repertoire, to its contemporaries it was revolutionary in its treatment of harmony, tonality and orchestration. Breaking free of the Austro-Hungarian tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, Debussy (who had won the Prix de Rome in 1884) transformed the direction of Western music. The languid opening theme is passed around the orchestra throughout the piece, but never becomes tiresome as each recurrence has a different colour, played by a different instrument. The delicate shading and orchestral colours explored by Debussy in this piece are renowned and were aptly captured in this sensitive performance. The harp, in particular, takes on an integral rather than ornamental role, adding to the ephemeral, dream-like quality of the music.

The versatility of the orchestra was demonstrated with their performance of Saint-Saëns’ Violin Concerto no. 3 in B minor (1880). This concerto is often considered the least technically taxing of Saint-Saëns’ violin concertos, yet the most musically gratifying. This does not adequately account for the level of virtuosity required and the interpretive challenges to a successful performance of the concerto. Soloist Alina Ibragimova proved more than equal to the task; her playing was recently described in The Times as ‘a mixture of total abandonment and total control that is in no way contradictory’, and on this evidence, this is entirely accurate. The first movement (Allegro non troppo) is stormy and tempestuous, opening with a dramatic and fraught statement for the soloist. Unusually for concertos from this period, there is no cadenza for the soloist. Ibragimova’s dynamic flexibility was made obvious by her ability to carry off these tense, angst-ridden passages equally as convincingly as the more lyrical writing of the second movement. The dialogue between woodwind and soloist is particularly interesting in the second movement (Andantino quasi allegro), which ends with the soloist playing harmonics, doubled by the clarinet. The exchange between orchestra and soloist was innovatory in Saint-Saëns’ time and worked beautifully here, with both showing each other off in a highly favourable light.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940) provided a wonderful contrast to the opening piece. Despite being the last piece the composer wrote before his death, the Symphonic Dances are still full of vitality. Composed while Rachmaninov was in exile in America, Rachmaninov feared people would think they were inspired by the jazz and dance bands of the period. The pioneering inclusion of the alto saxophone in the first movement has indeed lead to such associations being made, yet the saxophone is used to provide lyrical relief from the opening driving motor-rhythms, rather than as a jazz instrument. The second movement marks a change in mood, the waltz theme conjuring images of opulent Viennese ballrooms with swirling dancers. The final movement utilises two of Rachmaninov’s favourite inspirations: the Dies Irae and Russian Orthodox Church music. Although the piece suffered some initial neglect and misunderstanding it has since been incorporated into the standard orchestral repertoire and is recognised as a compelling example of Rachmaninov’s late style. The comfortable rapport between orchestra and conductor was evident here, indicating the mutual understanding developed over the course of several years work together. The almost telepathic response of the orchestra allowed Sokhiev to shape the music subtly. The sheer size of the orchestra (boasting 125 members) also contributed to the impressive sound.

The auditorium may not have been full, but the audience’s appreciation was evident, convincing the orchestra to perform an encore. The evening’s journey was concluded with a taste of Spain, the orchestra performing the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen to well-deserved adulation.

***11