Concerts with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris are interesting experiences: attending either a symphony or a chamber concert, you might discover a new way to appreciate what you hear. On Tuesday at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the OCP and its principal conductor Thomas Zehetmair presented Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, an impressionist and timeless dream, lightly orchestrated; Mozart’s Twelfth Piano Concerto, a galante piece meant to be “pleasing to the ear”; and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, a keystone between two eras, the symphony par excellence. This program was called “Heroes and Heroines”.

Thomas Zehetmair © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Thomas Zehetmair
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

The incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande was commissioned to Fauré in 1898 for performances of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play in London. Fauré liked this medieval, symbolic play, and composed his music for it quickly. He re-orchestrated it later to produce a four-movement suite, Op. 80. Conductor Thomas Zehetmair and the OCP gave the Prelude a sweet, colourful sound, and a rather fascinating atmosphere. In “Fileuse” (“The Spinner”), an oboe melody stands out against a string accompaniment evoking a spinning-wheel; Zehetmair’s romantic interpretation was pretty convincing for both oboe and accompaniment, even if the balance between them was not perfect. The famous “Sicilienne” showcased Marina Chamot-Leguay’s superb flute playing: she treated us to both surprising solos and beautiful accompaniments, just like in the Beethoven symphony later. The sweet flute and harp melody was then beautifully led, but the central passage was quite unclear – are Zehetmair’s up-beats precise enough for this accurate music? The final movement, “La mort de Mélisande” (“Mélisande’s death”), begins with a highly tragic, modal funeral march, seemingly coming right from medieval legends. It was played at Fauré’s own funeral. But here it lacked some expression and precision, as if we were not so touched by Mélisande’s death. However, the poetic, cathartic ending turned the rather heavy march into something delicate.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major is the first of the three Viennese concertos composed in 1783 for his own concert season. Despite the very classical form and the galante style, the writing is quite rich: Mozart wanted to stay natural without falling into mediocrity. Paul Lewis’ touch and sensitivity perfectly suited this atmosphere. With interesting contrasts but a generally sweet approach, both first and third movements were particularly well led, with a full, carefree air. The Andante could, though, have been more intimate, as it seems to have been intended – this emotive moment may have been an epitaph for Mozart’s friend and Bach’s son Johann Christian Bach, who had just died in London. Although the OCP’s accompaniment was driven in both fast movements by full understanding between conductor and soloist, this dialog became duller in the Andante. But the orchestra and its principal conductor seem to be used to this repertoire and their whole interpretation convinced effortlessly. Paul Lewis, the orchestral musicians and their conductor offered us a well crafted interpretation of this rare, delicate, sparkling concerto.

After having celebrated a legendary heroine, Mélisande, and a musical mentor, Johann Christian Bach, the concert turned to Beethoven’s piece written “to celebrate the memory of a great man”, having been intended for Bonaparte until he made himself emperor. After a first movement lacking dynamic contrast, we then had the concert’s third funeral movement (after those relating to the deaths of Mélisande and J.C.B.) – and here, again, we missed volume and solemnity. In the central fugato, several entries were overwhelmed by timpani or violins: violas and first cellos and double basses just after, despite bassist Rudolph Eckhard’s beautiful sound. Zehetmair led a bright, fast and precise scherzo, taking advantage of his excellent musicians, especially in the winds, despite some imprecisions in the horn calls. It contrasted with the thick finale, still unclear in the beats and not bright enough: the Prometheus hero theme (already used by the composer himself in The Creatures of Prometheus), actually lacked some heroism.

The most heroic piece of this program was perhaps the least heroic in this performance. But despite imprecisions of balance and beat, we will remember many heroes in the first two pieces, and Paul Lewis is one of them.