It seems that French music is en vogue recently. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra's focus on contemporary Gallic fare last season and the Philharmonia unrolling their 'City of Light: Paris 1900-1950' later this month, the London Philharmonic Orchestra made their contribution in a concert of 20th century French repertoire with a Spanish flavour. A lesser-known piece by Pierné rubbed shoulders with some classic works, in an evening only marred by a rather bizarre performance of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor.

Juanjo Mena © Columbia Artists Management Inc
Juanjo Mena
© Columbia Artists Management Inc

Although it may not have broken any new ground, it is hard to deny that Pierné's music for Ramuntcho is delightful and attractive. Written as incidental music for a staging of a novel by Pierre Loti, the music exists today in the form of two suites. The LPO performed a selection from both, transporting us to the Basque region of France with Spanish folk tunes and colourful harmonies: the quintuple-time “Zortzico” dance played a prominent part, and lively percussion furthered the sunny mood. Although the folk material seemed more perfumed than earthy in this particular interpretation, conductor Juanjo Mena's light touch lent the music a carefree feel. Alja Velkaverh, guest principal flautist, contributed some gorgeous solos, honeyed and delicate, with a wonderfully controlled pianissimo.

The first piece on the programme was certainly enjoyable; the second should have been just as much fun. However, Katia and Marielle Labeque's performance of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos badly misfired. The playing was often clumsy and their interpretation seemed almost parodic, certainly not helped by some quirky performance habits (jumping off the piano stool at the ends of phrases? Headbanging?). The serene, gamelan-like passages were much more effective: hypnotic and sensual, they provided musicality which was sometimes lacking in livelier sections. Although the LPO responded well to Mena, soloists and ensemble failed to connect. The encore of the “Brazileira” from Milhaud's Scaramouche highlighted everything that had been wrong with the concerto's performance: the artifice and the mannered phrasing disappeared as the Labeques simply enjoyed the music they were playing.

With Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, the concert was back on track. Mena's knack for creating atmosphere worked a treat in these impressions: the shimmering opening was heady and seductive, while the thrilling finale was vivacious and joyful. The LPO sounded fantastic, with some outstanding solos from principal players.

Mena's conception of Debussy's La Mer may have been expansive, but was generally well paced. He took a flexible approach to tempo, although his tendency to accelerate towards a structural climax and then drop back to a slower speed meant that the piece sometimes came across as episodic: certainly not the case, given how the interwoven ideas flow into one another. There were a few problems (notably, some inaccuracies in the principal clarinet and ensemble problems in the violins), but the LPO's performance of the piece was ultimately rousing. The concert certainly wasn't perfect, but the moments when the ensemble let loose were a joy to listen to.