The music started like a trickle of free-flowing thoughts being jotted down and ended like the triumphant throwing down of a pen after the last sentence of a novel has been inked onto the page. Pianist Igor Levit and the Orchestre National de France (ONF) led by Alain Altinoglu presented a colourful concert that journeyed between improvisatory lightness and foreboding darkness, and from children's tales to Russian folk stories.

Igor Levit © Robbie Lawrence
Igor Levit
© Robbie Lawrence

Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, written in 1805-6, was the last work the composer premiered as a soloist with orchestra. It's an intimate piece, lacking in the showy passages that typify many concertos, and it's filled with melodic lines that seem to tumble freshly out of one another. 

The concerto was an ideal vehicle for Levit to show off his thoughtful musicality and a crystalline touch. He played the concerto's unusual opening – solo piano with a series of gentle chords with a small upward sweep – as if he were putting a pen to paper, pausing to think, and then letting his words simply flow, making the notes seem as if they were coming to him for the very first time. He ambled through the first movement Allegro moderato with sparkling clean runs and superb hand voicing; the twinkling swirls in the right hand and climbing scales in the left were perfectly balanced and pristine. Without losing his light touch, Levit brought a rich introspection to the Andante con moto second movement. Levit and the orchestra's sensitivity to each other was clear, as their alternating sections were less a presentation of contrast than an exploration of two hues of the same dark colour. After getting past slight coordination wobbles between piano and cello in the opening, the Rondo vivace flew, with Levit and the orchestra almost seeming to race one another – and smiling all the way.

Levit's musical risk-taking throughout was at once bold, yet understated. Decisive pauses hung a split second longer than expected in the air, and the first movement cadenza had clustered impressionist tones (slightly too much so). Yet Levit never lost a feeling of simple play and enchanting spontaneity. After insistent applause, he performed Child Falling Asleep and The Poet Sleeps from Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood as an encore. Rocking and lulling, Levit showed off once again wonderful balance between hands and a stretched-out final silence that enveloped the audience.

Altinoglu, who had conducted the ONF with great attention to Levit during the concerto, turned his focus to the orchestra alone in the second half for Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919). Both pieces are musical expressions of stories, with the Ravel depicting various stand-alone fairytales for children and The Firebird, drawn from his ballet, narrating two Russian folktales combined into one work.

Originally written as a piano duet, the Mother Goose's fairytale themes and expressive instrumentation, with solo woodwinds often taking on the roles of characters, make it inherently colourful. The woodwinds shone, especially the growly contrabassoon and the sweet clarinet in Beauty and the Beast and a yearning cor anglais floating over weaving strings in Hop-'o-My-Thumb, and the percussion delivered energised punctuation in Empress of the Pagodas.

Mother Goose aims to capture the emotions in simple children's stories and with so much expression already composed in, the risk of interpretive exaggeration is never far. However, at times more emotion could have been spun out, especially in the less declarative sections such as Sleeping Beauty, which could have benefited from more lugubrious phrasing that Altinoglu bestowed so superbly elsewhere.

Altinoglu seemed more at home in the Stravinsky. He unleashed fervour and great physicality, relentlessly driving the orchestra forward and pulling knife-slashes from the strings in the Infernal Dance. The Introduction menaced with the looming shadow of the strings and eerie quietness, and Altinoglu kept the trembling strings bridging the Berceuse (Lullaby) and the Finale energised to the very end. 

This last movement showed the ONF at its best, with unison strings swelling upwards until they burst into the whole orchestra playing together with a rotund and triumphant sound. As an encore, the Farandole from George Bizet's L'Arlésienne brought the evening to a rousing conclusion.

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