Vive la France! Last night’s Philharmonia concert was a very Gallic affair; a celebration of French music conducted by the French conductor Stéphane Denève. Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s La Valse were all written between 1898 and 1920. The composers are further linked by friendship and an entanglement à trois: Debussy’s second wife was previously the lover of Fauré. This trio of twentieth century Frenchmen were joined last night by Mozart, whose 20th Piano Concerto was performed by pianist Piotr Anderszewski. An obvious choice, really...

© Drew Farrell
© Drew Farrell

French music of the early twentieth century requires a huge amount of orchestral colour: extremes of loud and soft and a vast array of different tones are essential. Fauré’s delicate Pelléas et Mélisande suite, taken from his incidental music written for Maeterlink’s symbolist play of the same title, is no exception to this rule. The piece demands a beautifully controlled pianissimo, a sound at which the Philharmonia excels. Denève’s calm gestures helped to create the dreamlike state that best accompanies this shadowy tale of the doomed lovers. The flute has a particularly predominant role within the piece, whether in the lilting Sicilienne or the tragic representation of the heroine’s death. How fortunate, then, that Guest Principal Samuel Coles’ bewitchingly colourful sound held the audience transfixed throughout the piece.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is one of only two of his thirty Piano Concerti written in a minor key. To Mozart, the key of D Minor had “daemonic” associations which he tended to reserve for his most emotionally charged operatic scenes. Pianist Piotr Anderszewski’s very dramatic reading was clearly influenced by moments such Don Giovanni’s D Minor descent to Hell, however the lighter approach of the orchestra stopped the work from losing the humour that is never far away in Mozart’s music. Denève and Anderszewski make an excellent partnership, each emphasising the dramatic contrasts in the music very successfully. Less successful was the middle movement, where Anderszewski’s theatrical placing of notes sullied the Romanza’s innocence and prevented it from contrasting effectively with the more stormy middle section. A more sprightly final movement followed at an excellent pace which allowed the playful orchestral passages to sparkle.

That sparkle became even more evident in the second half of the programme. Debussy’s La Mer is a treacherous choice: its tricky score has sunk many a great orchestra. Happily, Denève steered through the work without incident, capturing the tempestuousness that gives the piece interest by moulding huge swells of sound and changing tempo with the unpredictability of an Atlantic storm. The middle movement which depicts the waves at play showed off the woodwind players’ virtuosic levity and charismatic soloists, whilst in the third movement the brass took part in the argument between wind and sea with the enormous majesty of Neptune himself. A very different piece, Ravel’s La Valse is as disturbing as Debussy’s portrait of the power of the sea: an unsettling waltz builds in two intense crescendos broken by disorienting interludes. At times the waltz can sound like a parody, however under the baton of Denève Ravel’s intentions were clear. The frantic quality of the performance demonstrated that the dancers were spinning on the dancefloor of Death. This was by no means an easy programme to pull off: the three French pieces operate within a relatively similar soundworld and the addition of the Mozart was hard to understand. Denève and the Philharmonia succeeded in binding a rather strange programme together, if only by the sheer quality of their playing. Vive l’orchestre!