Last night’s programme was as surprising as it was complementary – like champagne with fish and chips! Shostakovich and Haydn might make odd bedfellows on paper but there is more than just a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour to both the Russian’s Ninth Symphony and the Austrian’s Symphony no. 96. A deftness of touch is inherent in all of Ravel’s music and here too, in both his piano concerto in G major and Le Tombeau de Couperin there was that subtle Gallic irony lurking beneath the music’s surface. The programme was immensely suited to the theatricals of Japanese conductor Eiji Oue who, with the insight and perfect timing of a thespian, delivered a rollicking interpretation of all pieces.

Eiji Oue © IMG Artists
Eiji Oue
© IMG Artists
Bubbling over with good humour and liveliness, the smiling presence of Oue from the podium immediately evoked a sunny mood for the opening allegro of Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony. The NSO responded with great energy to the demonstrative conducting of Oue, whose diminutive frame darted about, eliciting a fresh, vibrant sound from the orchestra, inspiring each member to communicate with one another as if it were a chamber group. The bassoons chuckled, the oboe trilled and the violins clearly depicted their stormy fugal lines in the Andante. This airy mood gave way to the more rustic charms of the Minuet where oboist Matthew Manning charmed with his melody. The finale meandered cheerfully on, humour lurking behind every phrase and syncopated off beats. The dip into the tonic minor was suitably mock-dramatic before the woodwinds carolled us back to D major, while the leader of the orchestra, Elaine Clark’s solo was delivered with pin point accuracy before the symphony came to a flourishing conclusion.

Pianist David Fray was the yang to Oue’s yin. As pensive and serious as the conductor was extroverted and light-hearted, Fray produced a captivating sound that was muscular in the more mechanical moments and deeply spiritual in the work’s lyrical sections. This was not a sentimental, jocose interpretation but one filled with seriousness of intent so that even the improvisatory jazz sections in the first movement had a thoughtfulness to it that was quite arresting in its novelty. Sitting back in his chair, Fray gave both conductor and orchestra brief, infrequent glances, and yet I was deeply impressed at how intently he matched his sound to theirs. He displayed an enchanting delicacy in spinning his gossamer melodic thread amidst the melting harmonies of the left hand arpeggios and trills in the right only to have it snapped off with the biting rhythms in the growling lower registers of the piano.

The Adagio assai second movement contains one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies ever created and Fray produced the most ravishing sounds while the orchestra joined in with the utmost sensitivity. Deborah Clifford on the cor anglais gave a pleasing rendition of the languorous main theme in the recap this time to a tiptoeing countermelody on the piano. The Presto finale got off to a rocky start with squalls from the brass but the piano’s brilliantly executed filigree and the busy chattering of the bassoon soon made us forget this. Oue was in his element here among the noisy orchestral fireworks while Fray’s deadpan approach served to highlight the delectable irony of the music. An explosive conclusion and sustained applause brought this half to an end.

Post interval we were treated to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Hearing his concerto and Tombeau back to back, Ravel’s harmonic idiom is strikingly similar in the two works. The diaphanous sound world of the opening Prélude was well evoked by Oue: the violins harmonies shimmered, the cor anglais merrily bobbed along while the oboe wafted its beautiful melody heavenwards. Oue captured the teasing phrases of the Forlane with a mincing lightness while both the Minuet and Rigaudon possessed other worldly charm. Special mention goes again to oboist Matthew Manning for his consistently intelligent and expressively lyrical playing. The NSO allowed the gloriously Ravelian harmonies to shine through and at times basking in their warm sunny glow.

Given the light-hearted mood of much of Shostakovich’s Ninthexpectations were high that Oue was going to deliver a cracking performance. Nor were they disappointed. Bursting with energy and good humour, the first movement chortled on with its amusing piccolo motifs and raucous trombone interjections, Elaine Clark shining in her solo. The reflective Moderato chills the effervescent spirit. Here Oue managed to plumb some of its profundity with its expressive oboe and mutterings on muted strings. Credit to the trombone and tuba players and to bassoonist Michael Jones for their lugubrious melody in the fourth movement. As the mood turned once again to celebration, Oue could not contain his excitement jumping around the podium and delivering a finale of terrific verve. 

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