Wave after wave of romantic imagery from La Vie Parisienne cascaded through my mind during this evening of music by Ravel and Offenbach. True, these images were largely born of Belle Époque fantasy rather than any memories of the reality of Paris such that it seemed appropriate for the lushness to have begun with Ravel’s Mother Goose suite of five brief studies, each inspired by fairy tales.

Fabien Gabel
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The London Philharmonic Orchestra was in the hands of Fabien Gabel, a guest conductor born in Paris but nowadays to be found across the Atlantic as Music Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec. He conducted with flair and vitality, particularly the Gaîté Parisienne Ballet SuiteIf there had been dancers high-kicking to the allegro music instantly associated with the can-can, one could almost imagine him jauntily bouncing alongside them! Sadly, the camera, in Nathan Prince ‘s intimate direction, often framed Gabel against rows of empty seats in the Royal Festival Hall, reminding us of the general absence of gaiety in Paris or anywhere else over this past year. 

Ravel’s five-movement fairy tale suite has had several iterations, beginning as a piano duet written for two children, in 1910; later transcribed for solo piano before being orchestrated and then expanded into a long-forgotten ballet, which premiered in January 1912. It starts gently with the brief Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty and this softness continues into Hop-o'-My-Thumb, describing through oboe, piccolo and flute the sad despair of Tom Thumb lost in an overwhelming forest of dramatic strings while the woodwind and solo violin articulate the birds devouring his escape trail of breadcrumbs.

Alexandra Dariescu
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

These pastoral influences take a dramatic shift in the exotic, gamelan-flavoured Little Ugly One, Empress of the Pagodas accentuated by two dominating flurries of the xylophone; and then onto the dramatic strings and oboe solo (Ian Hardwick) to represent the Dialogues Between Beauty and the Beast, the latter’s initial anger articulated through a dark passage led by the tuba of Lee Tsarmalkis. The Fairy Garden is dominated by the violins, led by Pieter Schoeman, bringing this charming suite full circle to the poetic gentleness of its beginning. It is 20 minutes of calming contemplation, as if dozing while some unseen narrator whispers a story.

Ravel had the idea for his Piano Concerto in G major at much the same time that he wrote Mother Goose, but it took another 20 years to come to fruition. It reflects the composer’s respect for the lightness of Mozart’s concerto form, taking the same fast-slow-fast, three-movement structure. The first movement is steeped in jazz motifs (moments remind me of Bernstein or even Gershwin) and the spectacular virtuoso pianism was performed with a rich mix of panache and smiling insouciance by Alexandra Dariescu. The melodic middle section was achingly poignant in her long, flowing piano solo, as if the notes were being dragged slowly from a weight within the piano, before Dariescu was joined by the flute of Juliette Bausor in a conversation supported by the strings. The tranquillity was briefly interrupted by a sudden and surprising dissonance in the melody, restored by the soothing sound of the oboe; and in a distinct tension between the time signatures of the piano solo and its accompaniment, which was resolved in the final bars. The brief, concluding Presto returned to the fast piano passages and jazzy accompaniment, which morphed temporarily into the brass section’s pastiche of a military march before the dynamic virtuosity of Dariescu, hands crossing relentlessly, brought the concerto to its dramatic conclusion.

Fabien Gabel conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The Gaîté Parisienne suite is a tapestry of music drawn from various Offenbach compositions selected by Léonide Massine for his ballet created for the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo in 1938; almost 60 years after the composer’s death. It is a ballet with which I am familiar largely due to the illegal activities of Victor Jessen, who laboriously created a film by splicing together footage he had surreptitiously shot from the audience over a ten-year period. Cast members and costumes change in the blink of an eye and the synchronisation of sound and vision wavers like a drunk on a tightrope, but  it is the only way we can witness this ballet as performed by Alexandra Danilova, Frederick Franklin and Gertrude Tyven(as the lead can-can dancer). And this rousing performance by the LPO brought it all back in vivid Technicolor (although Jessen’s film was black-and-white, Warner Brothers filmed a sensationalised colour version of Gaîté Parisienne, in 1941, also starring Franklin as the Baron). The scintillating can-can and polkas are offset by the glorious and familiar finale of the Barcarolle with the magical notes of the celesta, played by Catherine Edwards, bringing this gorgeous fantasy of a Parisian evening to a close.        


This performance was reviewed from the video stream on Marquee TV