I had never heard any of the music scheduled the evening’s performance and so I was excited by the prospect of the all-French programme, featuring composers whose music I am particularly fond of. Berlioz’s Overture to “Le Corsaire” commenced the evening’s music as Proms-debutant conductor Lionel Bringuier began with a great deal of vigour clearly intending to make his mark on the Royal Albert Hall. The piece however is hardly Berlioz at his best. Despite the zeal the orchestra put into the performance, the overall product was hardly extraordinary.

The start of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 was a rather tentative one from the orchestra, perhaps due to a few nerves from the debutant conductor, but there was no such hesitation from soloist Nelson Freire, whose entry was a welcome one, as Chopin’s orchestral writing clearly does not compare to that for his instrument. The start of the second movement showed particularly well Freire’s beautifully delicate approach, creating some wonderful celestial tones in his arpeggios. His performance was certainly sensitive, technically perfect and I could not fault the orchestra but for a few minor mishaps. But there was nothing spectacular about it; it was simply an accomplished performance. Thankfully many other audience members were more enthusiastic than I, and their applause was rewarded with an encore that I actually enjoyed more than the concerto itself. On reflection I wonder whether Freire’s wonderfully delicate tone was perhaps better appreciated unaccompanied; the silence seemed to add something to his performance.

Roussel’s third symphony was much the same story as that of the Berlioz: Though different in style, it seemed to exemplify why he is lesser known today than his French contemporaries. The piece had some nice elements, especially in the second movement, which seemed to explore more interesting tonality with some lovely soaring melodies at times, and you could hear influences of contemporaries like Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky but overall it would seem that his music was not of the same quality. Despite this, the orchestra did a good job in performing it to its full potential, with some lovely solos particularly by the violin in the fourth movement and a suitably grand finish.

The following performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë Orchestral Suite no. 2 highlighted the gap in class between these two composers as I was immediately struck by Ravel’s masterful and ingenious orchestration, interpreted wonderfully by the orchestra to create pictures and worlds beyond the music itself. There were soaring melodies that would have been worthy of any sweeping shot of James Bond sailing off the Côte D’Azur –surely the inspiration for such music– whilst also containing mysterious and joyous moments. In short, the piece had everything. Ravel’s wonderful orchestral colour was well extracted by Bringuier and the orchestra, who must have had a lot of fun playing the piece; especially the nine required members of the percussion section!

Simon Birch
12th August 2010