Why should anybody pay any attention at all to what critics write? This was the verdict of one of London’s leading review magazines in 1843: “Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks.” A half-century later, it was the turn of another great French musical genius to feel the barbs of expert critical opinion. This time the coryphaeus of another London gazette summed up: “Saint-Saëns has, I suppose, written as much music as any composer ever did; he has certainly written more rubbish than any one I can think of. It is the worst, most rubbishy kind of rubbish.” If critics ever had to eat their own words, they would all be declared clinically obese.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine

Paul Daniel, musical director of Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine since 2013, had the considerable benefit of Bertrand Chamayou as his soloist for the Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor by Saint-Saëns. You could almost take the brilliance in the virtuoso passages for granted, from the powerful opening statement with its backward references to Bach through to the scintillating roulades and arabesques of the Finale. What I equally enjoyed though was the way Chamayou stressed the improvisatory quality of the cadenza-like writing in the first movement, with subtle variations in colour and tone and more than a hint of melancholy. I did wonder, however, whether balances were awry in the recorded sound: the frequent boldness of the soloist was not matched by the orchestral accompaniment, and in the Finale only the third cymbal crash (the composer marks the three iterations p, mf and f) was audible. Altogether Daniel’s support with the ONBA was a tad over-careful, without much zip and zing in the concluding Presto, as though they were wary of stealing their soloist’s thunder.

Paul Daniel
© Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine

And so to the lunatic Berlioz. After so many recent lean and hungry online concerts, it was good to see a total of 55 strings in action for the Symphonie fantastique. All repeats were given so that this performance came in at just shy of an hour. There were also real bells to savour in the Finale. Very surprisingly, for me at least, the most successful movement was the central Adagio: I suspect this is an orchestra whose qualities emerge more in slow-moving music. The opening dialogue between cor anglais and off-stage oboe evoked a genuinely pastoral atmosphere, and towards the close the rumble of thunder from the four timpani brought the curtain down on a magical day in the country. This was where Daniel was at his best, skilfully controlling the ebb and flow without any suggestion of stasis, and indeed wonderfully alive to all the contrasting operatic elements.

Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine
© Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine

However, for a piece that owes its origins to the influence of opium, this was a very sober affair: Berlioz after a spell in rehab. There was little ésprit and élan to the opening movement, not much bite and attack from the strings, and no tingling sense of anticipation. I waited in vain to be swept off my feet in “A Ball” where the seams were sadly showing. Admittedly, Bordeaux is at some remove from the home of the guillotine in Paris, but this was an almost celebratory “March to the Scaffold”, the menace and terror scarcely hinted at. The concluding “Witches Sabbath” turned out to be quite a jolly affair, nightmare turned instead into a comforting view of bright sunny uplands. Referring to his new work, Berlioz commented to a friend in 1829: “I mean to stagger the musical world.” This performance hardly raised an eyebrow.

 

This performance was reviewed from the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine live video stream

***11