It was the golden jubilee of Saint-Säens as a concert pianist, and in celebration he performed his crowning glory, the Piano Concerto no. 5 in F, “Egyptian”, which he composed while on tour in Luxor, incorporating exotic Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms. The concerto is not known to be given over to excessive fin de siècle romanticism, and whatever there was Jean-Yves Thibaudet certainly didn’t overindulge in. When I heard him in the same work ten months ago, I was impressed with his delicate touch, but with the LA Philharmonic under fellow countryman Lionel Bringuier on Friday night, he shone even more brightly. The unassuming opening chords masked the torrent of pianistic virtuosity about to be unleashed, and Thibaudet did it with vehemence. There was no compromise on articulation, as his impeccable phrasing shaped the contours of the solo part to perfection. Yet the orchestra wasn’t to be outdone, with outstanding sustained horns in the second movement that paved the way to a lilting “Nubian love song”. The soaring Moorish interlude was exquisite. The final movement was a race between soloist and orchestra to carry the bouncy melody to its conclusion, with the contest ending in a tie.

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

When Ravel conceived of the ballet Daphnis and Chloé as a “vast musical fresco”, he embarked on a war path with the most influential impresario of the time, Serge Diaghilev, and choreographer Michel Fokine. Humbled by the lacklustre reception of its première in 1912, Ravel reduced it to two orchestral suites, which are performed more frequently than the ballet. The Second Suite picks up the action as Daphnis wakes up from a dream in which the god Pan helps rescue his shepherdess lover Chloé from pirate kidnappers. As Chloé returns to Daphnis’ arms, they celebrate in a dance.

In “Daybreak”, the luxuriant strings and chirpy woodwinds did a fine job painting the quiet of dawn interrupted by singing birds and brightening sunshine. The fluidity of the section was such that it sounded as if it floated on a murmuring stream. Full marks to flautist Catherine Ransom Karoly for a stunningly poignant performance in “The Pantomime” as Daphnis and Chloé mime the courtship of Pan and Syrinx. All hell broke loose when the full force of the orchestra, with the brass leading the way, exploded in the “General Dance” to celebrate the two lovers’ reunion with an inexorable rhythm.

Nothing symbolises the opulent glory of imperial Europe in the second half of the 19th century better than the waltz. From its humble origin as the Ländler – a dance of the peasants – it had crawled its way into the high-society ballrooms of the rich and privileged. There is no agreement whether we should interpret La Valse, which Ravel described as a “choreographic poem”, to be the composer bewailing the decay of Western culture after World War I. Yet there shouldn’t be any doubt that his intentions for a tribute to the waltz, which he began in 1906 and named Wien, had changed significantly when he completed the work as La Valse in 1920. For a start, he had witnessed, and probably been deeply affected by, the atrocities of the war.

In the hands of Lionel Bringuier, the three-beat dance rhythm was fast and swirling but soon degenerated into a tune redolent of the vulgarity found in a smoke-filled parlour of disrepute in Paris. Not that the central waltz motif was not silky and seductive. On the contrary, it was very sensuous, but as it disintegrated into chaos a mocking tone emerged resembling that of a harlequin caricaturing the excesses of imperial grandeur. The effect is best imagined as the musical equivalent of a movie clip opening with a hazy picture of a scene clearing up only for the image to peel away and melt into a grotesque, amorphous mess. Supported by sweeps on the harp, the waltz tune in the end took an ugly turn as the brass started chopping it into disjointed and distorted phrases.

No review of a performance in the Disney Concert Hall would be complete without mention of its superb acoustics, exposing the full spectrum of orchestral colours in crystalline transparency. Not that Lionel Bringuier and the LA Phil needed the help, as both were in fine form. Friday’s concert was a magnificent finale to the conductor’s six-year tenure as Resident Conductor. We wish him the best in his new appointment as music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich in the 2014/15 season.