The third concert of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2017 Premier Series was an all-French affair with at turns elegant and colourful programme of Ravel, Poulenc, Bizet and Dukas. Aided by Mahan Esfahani, the orchestra illustrated the diversity of the French orchestral tradition, ranging from nods back to the Baroque to dynamic and vivid programme music. However, the somewhat erratic conducting impeded full enjoyment.

Mahan Esfahani © Bernhard Musil | DG
Mahan Esfahani
© Bernhard Musil | DG

Originally composed as a suite for solo piano, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was conceived simultaneously as a tribute to François Couperin and a dedication to the memories of Ravel’s friends who had fallen in the First World War. Four of the six piano solo movements, structured as an imitation Baroque dance suite, made it into this orchestrated version. The pared-down Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra initially struggled to settle rhythmically in the opening arpeggiated woodwind figures. Though these technical troubles cleared up, conductor’s Hamish McKeich’s interpretation seemed to skate over the music rather than truly engage with it. While the Rigaudon was suitably high-spirited, the Menuet lacked poignancy and the overall effect was more witty than involving.

Thankfully the mood elevated significantly with the arrival of Iranian-American harpsichordist Esfahani, the young musician who has become something of an unlikely star recently through his commitment to the instrument. This was Poulenc’s first concerto-writing experience, commissioned by modern harpsichord pioneer Wanda Landowska. In this next throwback to the Baroque, Poulenc, intrigued by the sounds of the antique instrument, combines an early 20th-century nostalgia for that period with all kinds of quirky harmonic twists. McKeich seemed immediately more in tune with the idiom here, tying together the very disparate episodes of the opening movement with great clarity. The Baroque and the modern collide in this work and McKeich allowed for an appropriate level of disorientation while retaining forward momentum. Esfahani left no technical or interpretive stone unturned, drawing a surprising amount of colour from the harpsichord. A short period of poor ensemble between soloist and orchestra early on didn’t detract too much from his evident mastery, his zesty senses of rhythm and humour mesmerising the audience throughout. No matter how virtuosic nothing phased Esfahani’s formidable technique and he ended the movement with a gorgeously-rendered, but appropriately eerie, cadenza.

Sandwiched between the zany outer movements was a poised and melancholic account of the second movement Sicilienne, perfectly controlled but relaxed in execution. The third movement opened with what sounded like an excerpt from some unknown Scarlatti or Rameau piece in which Esfahani showed off his Baroque credentials with some dainty and fleet fingerwork. The orchestral brass rustically evoked the French countryside as though through Poulenc’s urbane Parisian lens while the soloist and conductor mined every nugget of absurdity from this most jovial of movements. With the aid of some subtle amplification and Poulenc’s shrewd orchestration, the difficult balance between the orchestra and the generally low-volume was well-achieved. The encore (real Rameau this time) was an astonishing tour-de-force set of variations involving some spectacular hand-crossing virtuosity.

The second half brought further sunny French fare in the form of selections from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne incidental music and Dukas’ evergreen The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Bizet’s portrayal of southern France was represented by five separate movements excerpted from the two suites compiled by Bizet himself and Ernest Guiraud respectively. Sadly, the interpretations were again frustratingly erratic. A full-blooded, majestic account of the Pastorale contrasted with an Adagietto taken so slowly and shapelessly that it almost fell apart under its own weight. Both the Prelude and Farandole (sharing the same melody) were excitingly delivered, the theme bouncing round the different sections of the orchestra in the former with interesting differentiation of moods.

Dukas’ portrait of the novice wizard, based on Goethe’s 1797 poem, was most famously used in the scene in Disney’s Fantasia where the broomsticks come to life. The soft opening was delightfully mysterious and the ensuing sequence of events were enchanting in their evocativeness. As these events spiralled out of the apprentice’s control, the orchestral gestures became ever wilder and more exhilarating until the final thrillingly clipped finish. In both Bizet and Dukas, the orchestra was almost beyond reproach, ensemble problems of the first half having been well and truly left behind. Orchestral soloists impressed throughout with an affecting saxophone in the L’Arlesienne Prelude and percussionist Eric Renick impressing in the crazily difficult glockenspiel part. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Esfahani and McKeish’s sterling account of the Poulenc and the orchestra’s thrilling take on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this was not a consistent enough concert to be called a complete success.