What’s in a name? The man officially known in Soviet circles as Moisey Vainberg (and sometimes Wajnberg) until 1982, was then rehabilitated as Mieczysław Weinberg. An orchestra established in Paris in 1937 under the name of Orchestre Radio-Symphonique, became Orchestre Philharmonique de L’ORTF in 1964 and then Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in 1976, before dropping the "Nouvel" thirteen years later. Not to be confused with Orchestre National de France, founded in 1934 and also administered by French radio. (Keeping up at the back, are we?) Mikko Franck, one of the many stars in Finland’s conducting firmament, has been its music director since 2015.

Sol Gabetta © Uwe Arens
Sol Gabetta
© Uwe Arens

By far the most intriguing work that Franck and his French musicians brought with them on their first visit to the Elbphilharmonie was Weinberg’s Cello Concerto in C Minor. This composer’s music is enjoying something of a renaissance (and there are 154 opus numbers to explore), and on the basis of this performance by Sol Gabetta it is easy to see why. In the opening movement there is a haunting melancholy that goes straight to the heart. When it is played with the kind of rapt restraint exercised here, you know that there will be no empty gestures, no overstated mawkishness, but simply the expression of basic existential sadness. The second movement is more obviously Jewish in influence, with klezmer elements provided by bright-voiced trumpets. Though Franck was diligent in the way he supported Gabetta, I had no sense that he was quite matching the conviction of her playing. There is a degree of earthiness in the orchestral writing, which was insufficiently realised here. In the final movement that follows on from an extended cadenza, powerfully delivered by Gabetta, the influence of Shostakovich, who befriended Weinberg, is most evident. Interestingly, it is the jocular mood characteristic of that composer’s ninth symphony which is more to the fore – written three years before Weinberg set out to compose his C minor concerto.

Why The Sorcerer's Apprentice was deemed a suitable pairing for the first half I find hard to conceive. Moreover, this appeared to be very much a Finnish view of what the sorcerer’s apprentice does with his master’s broomstick: outside in the crisp northern air, under a cloudless sky with temperatures close to freezing, each of the orchestral textures picked out almost clinically, like a gloved waste disposal operative deploying a long grabbing tool. Admittedly, the acoustics in this hall are tricky. However, there was little sense of mystery or dramatic anticipation, and when the heat should have been turned up, not much awareness either of the blind panic the apprentice himself must have faced after his self-inflicted misfortune. To me this sounded more like Dukas re-imagined by Ravel.

The second half featured two pieces designed to demonstrate orchestral virtuosity. Franck smiles at his players a lot, but that doesn’t always translate into "sourires" in the orchestral playing. Even when the subject is mortality, you expect some degree of warmth and consolation by way of empathetic consideration. And when it’s Richard Strauss who is doing the talking, you can also demand opulence. As he lay on his death-bed in 1949, he himself commented: “Dying is just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.” Judging by the way Franck started this tone poem, the composer was only half-awake during the process. After the slow introduction, the transition into the Allegro section came with little awareness of overall structure, the brass frequently drowning out the strings in the unhelpful acoustic. What was certainly missing from this performance was the narrative element. Franck might have been efficient at timekeeping and cueing, but where was the storytelling? Even though the apotheosis had a ring of conviction to it, the earlier lack of drive and imprecisions in wind chording left an overall impression of an orchestra tested beyond its limits.

How different then to experience this self-same French orchestra in a classic French work, with a very French-sounding first oboe and enticingly fruity playing from the trumpets. In Ravel’s La Valse these players demonstrated a natural feel for rubato: those momentary hesitations, the sideways glances this way and that, the gentle nod of the head and the gentle rise and fall as the rhythms of the waltz swept across the ballroom floor. And the courtly elegance that masks something much more seditious was also there, so that as the "poème chorégraphique" gathered pace, the dark corners in the dancing-space gradually began to loom large. As Ravel put it: “It is a fatal spinning around, the expression of vertigo and of the voluptuousness of the dance to the point of paroxysm.” In the closing pages, Franck whipped up the tempo quite furiously, so that there could only be the expected cataclysmic end. C’est tout.

***11