In a program featuring mainly lesser-known repertoire, this Orchestre National de France concert opened with Igor Stravinsky's Le Chant du rossignol. It's a work that began life as an opera, later becoming a symphonic piece that was also mounted as a ballet. It's a fascinating score in which Stravinskian dissonances are couched in an “orientalist” context. While there is a storyline, it isn't needed to enjoy the music, which was convincingly presented by conductor Fabien Gabel and the ONF musicians. The interpretation had atmospherics in spades; Gabel really played up the spiky brass outbursts, while the flute and trumpet solos were particularly noteworthy, hypnotic and even haunting in places.

Marielle Labèque, Fabien Gabel and Katia Labèque
© Orchestre National de France

The piano duo team of Katia and Marielle Labèque presented Poulenc's Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in D minor, a piece that has been in the sisters' repertoire for decades (their Boston Symphony recording dates from 1991) and clearly they have this music in their blood. In the percussive opening, lithe and quicksilver, the jazz idioms were emphasized while the slow section was introspective and even magical. In the second movement Larghetto the spirit of Mozart hovered overhead, but was actually more Romantic than Classical in flavor, an interpretation that worked. The final Allegro molto brought us thrilling pianistic pyrotechnics, with the phrases being tossed back and forth between the two soloists. Gabel and the ONF were perfect collaborators, contributing their own share of “sass with class”. 

Following intermission, Gabel presented two compositions by Florent Schmitt that have been in the forefront of the conductor's advocacy for a composer whose star once shone brightly. Played first was Rêves, a dreamscape that is, in the words of Gabel, “completely hallucinating as well as brilliantly orchestrated”. Composed in 1915, one wonders if Schmitt was influenced by his two-year stint in World War 1, considering the nature of the music. Gabel conjured up the weird, brooding free-form emotions of the piece to masterful effect while also bringing out the rich colors that are inherent in Schmitt's score. The final bars gave us a hint of brightness, suggesting the suspended sense of time one feels when slowly awakening from a dream.

For the final work on the program, Gabel chose one of the glories of the French choral repertoire, Schmitt's Psaume XLVII. The piece burst onto the Paris musical scene when it was premiered in 1906, with the composer being heralded as the “New Berlioz”. Gabel made the most of the several hundred musicians filling the hall, beginning with stentorian trumpets and percussion calling the chorus to attention in the first section, “O clap your hands all ye people”. 

Fabien Gabel, Marie Perbost, Chœur de Radio France and the Orchestre National de France
© Orchestre National de France

 A finely wrought violin solo ushered in the rapturous middle section in which soprano Marie Perbost sang the words of the Song of Songs, delivering dramatic sweep that was movingly expressive – although employing a touch too much rubato in some of her vocal lines. On the other hand, the demanding choral parts – with high tessitura for the sopranos and tenors – were performed with extraordinary precision.

As for the orchestral players, they had an equally important role with impactful brass and woodwind passages, not to mention the difficult string parts that were played flawlessly. Mention should also be made of the percussion section, kept continually busy in large portions of the score. Everything came together in an electrifying performance that underscored why this piece was so impactful at its premiere and why it continues to thrill audiences whenever it's presented. This über-brilliant Gabel/ONF performance continued that tradition.