Games of various types pirouetted in and out of Les Siècles' Gallic programme last night, from Debussy's play of the waves in La Mer to the shenanigans of a distinctly adult game of tennis in his ballet Jeux. There was even the playful sparkle of a fountain in Jeux d'eau as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's encore. None of these are remotely associated with childhood though. For that, Ravel's Mother Goose fitted the bill, especially when accompanied by Grégoire Pont's live animations to keep the young at heart in the audience entertained.

François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in rehearsal © Nick Rutter
François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in rehearsal
© Nick Rutter

Debussy’s Jeux was premiered in May 1913, just a fortnight before the riotous first performance of The Rite of Spring, both taking place at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, both conducted by Pierre Monteux and both presented by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Described as a poème dansé, its libretto concerns two young women and a man searching for a lost tennis ball, leading to various liaisons and games of hide-and-seek among the bushes. Diaphanous strings and perfumed woodwinds wove in and out the bosky shadows of Debussy’s erotically charged score, sensually moulded by François-Xavier Roth’s batonless hands. Vibrato was applied with taste. The final string sigh – as a tennis ball is tossed limply to the stage, causing the startled trio to scatter – was deliciously done.

The performance of Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose) wouldn’t have been to all tastes. Donning a single white glove, Grégoire Pont took up his position behind the first violins as ‘soloist’, opening up his laptop to provide live drawings and programmed animations to illustrate Ravel’s ballet, projected onto a large screen. His doodles had a certain French whimsy about them as diminutive Tom Thumb was taken on a tour of a fairytale land, over a whirring spinning wheel, tiptoeing past Sleeping Beauty. There was a nod towards the Minotaur and Ariadne in “Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête” and a Chinese Dragon loomed in “Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes”, cued by an ominous gong. Did they add to or subract from Les Siècles’ enchanting performance? Those who preferred to supply their own pictures could just close their eyes. 

Les Siècles in rehearsal © Nick Rutter
Les Siècles in rehearsal
© Nick Rutter

No illustrations were required in Debussy’s La Mer, Roth ushering in the gentlest of dawns and the lithe cello octet revelling in the spray and spume as we set off on our voyage. Period brass meant that the strings were never swamped and the delicate ring of a particularly shapely 19th-century triangle contributed to the glittering “Jeux de vagues”. A fruity trumpet solo helped whip up stormy seas – no wonder the woodwinds felt a little queasy, intonation-wise, at times. Although the work was started in France, Debussy completed it on this side of La Manche, at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, perhaps explaining the greyer skies in the finale.

The highlight of the evening, though, was a star turn by an elegant, elderly grand-mère in the form of a gorgeous 1892 Pleyel, coaxed into colourful voice by Bavouzet in Ravel's Piano Concerto for left hand. The instrument’s period tang ranged from a sonorous, almost hollow low chime to brilliant clarity in the upper register. Undulating double basses and a flatulent contrabassoon, riper than Roquefort, set the scene for an incredibly characterful rendition. Jaunty strings, slinky bassoon and sassy trombone helped this old lady strut her stuff in Ravel’s jazz-infused score, Bavouzet’s dramatic glissando bounding up the Pleyel’s keyboard full of glee. His encore tickled and sparkled, earning the old girl an appreciative pat. Grandmothers tell the best stories of all.

****1