Bookending two contemporary French works (including one UK première) with familiar fare, this was definitely a concert of two halves. As with last week’s concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra excelled in the more recent repertoire, giving dazzling performances of Gérard Pesson’s Ravel à son âme and Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto. Although Bolero brought the concert to a rousing close, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 opened the evening on a shaky note.

Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré
Lionel Bringuier
© Jonathan Grimbert-Barré

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony balances an easy charm and cheerful nature with a sense of spirited propulsion. It was this latter element that conductor Lionel Bringuier chose to emphasise in his interpretation; however, his propensity to rush through the music all too often sacrificed accuracy and cohesion of ensemble for excitement. The performance was inconsistent: although the BBC SO revelled in the bigger moments (which were full of colour and dynamism), for the most part the performance felt unsettled. The BBC SO strings particularly suffered under some of Bringuier’s tempo choices: passagework was often questionable, and quieter moments felt limp (particularly in the second movement). Bringuier’s energetic approach paid off in the third movement, but even here the ensemble was not flawless. The woodwind were the redeeming feature of the performance, providing much-needed clarity in the finale and some refined solos in the second movement.

Much of Gérard Pesson’s music quite literally negotiates with the musical past, incorporating quotations from and allusions to the works of other composers to sit seamlessly beside new ideas. Inspired while arranging three Ravel songs for choir (including “Ronsard à son âme”), Pesson’s homage to his predecessor considers what the composer might have said to his soul. In Ravel à son âme, Pesson isolates characteristic Ravelian traits and transforms them to uncanny effect. Beginning in the shadowy depths of the orchestra, Pesson crafts a sensuous and spacious texture which acts as a musical melting pot: we glimpse ideas as they emerge, before sinking back below the surface once again. A brief appearance of the castanet mingles with the luxurious divided strings of “Une barque sur l’océan”, and birdsong sits alongside insistent, quasi-mechanical rhythmic patterns.

At only five minutes in length, the piece is an enigmatic portrait, refracting elements of the composer’s works to present a new perspective. Although it encompasses a wide span of material, Pesson creates coherence through a distinct soundworld: sumptuous orchestration is mixed with rhythmic dynamism, ensuring a sense of direction to navigate the kaleidoscopic texture.

Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto also features the familiar recontextualised, with stereotypical virtuoso gestures reconfigured as material for development. The work juxtaposes active and more contemplative roles for the flute, integrating them into a single gestural sweep punctuated only by orchestral harmonic reference points (which only redirect the flute on its course). The concerto makes significant demands on the stamina and virtuosity of its soloist, and BBC SO principal flute Michael Cox confronted both with assurance: a relentless, unbroken line and extended performance techniques were executed with a clean, bright tone. Bringuier handled the transitions between spacious and more dynamic sections with fluidity, directing the BBC SO in a nuanced performance. Their brilliance of sound brought clarity to Dalbavie’s writing throughout, although the hypnotic oscillations in the dream-like episodes were especially effective. The emergence of bell sounds towards the end references the music of the “spectral” composers (influences upon Dalbavie’s early music), expanding into a more spacious and resonant realm before the concerto is abruptly curtailed.

Although Ravel’s Bolero wasn’t flawless (with a few fluffed notes and overdone rubato in certain solos), I couldn’t help smile at the buoyancy and energy brought by Bringuier as he urged the players towards an earsplitting and rousing conclusion (with the ballast provided largely by the trombones). After a disappointing start to the concert, the BBC SO went out with a bang.