A French evening of 20th-century neoclassical works was a breath of fresh air. It was good to hear a German orchestra find the necessary flexibility, lightness of tone and wit that is so intrinsic to French music of this period. Paavo Järvi is a conductor who finds his home in most musical genres he turns to and he certainly helped the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester produce warm hearted accounts of all the works on offer.

Paavo Järvi
© Elbphilharmonie

Poulenc's Sinfonietta (1947) is a work that has never really caught on as much as his early ballet Les Biches. The composer seemed to be somewhat inhibited in the first movement, with its rather awkward sonata form. However, he becomes more relaxed as the movements progress, relying sensibly on his bottomless pit of gentle charm and melodic gifts. The Andante cantabile is particularly lovely creation, its exquisite string melody luxuriously played here.

Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is another charmer. It has that quality of perfection Ravel instinctively aspired to throughout his career. Sanity and grace are an antidote to his experiences on the frontline in the First World War, each movement commemorating lost friends. In this performance the tricky woodwind writing wasn’t given the slickest of performances in all departments, but there was much needed character to the playing overall, which is perhaps preferable in this case to over-refinement. The Menuet was a particular joy, capturing the affectionate sadness of the piece.

Jens Plücker (principal horn)
© Elbphilharmonie

Albert Roussel is a deeply under-appreciated composer in the concert hall. Occasional outings of his Third Symphony and his ballet Bacchus et Ariane, touch only the tip of a very interesting iceberg. His late Sinfonietta for Strings is a work full of neoclassical wit and a more propulsive symphonic toughness. As with many of his works, the true depth of feeling is only heard in the slow movements, here a rather dark place. However, it only momentarily interrupts the energetic flow, leading directly into the rhythmic and exciting finale. The Elbphilharmonie strings had just the right balance of heft and flexibility and Järvi drove things along with gusto.

Paavo Järvi conducts the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester
© Elbphilharmonie

Jacques Ibert is another French composer too often overlooked in the concert hall. His irreverent Divertissement was written in 1929, originally as the incidental music to a production of The Italian Straw Hat, and is his most played work for good reason. It is a delightful mixture of the playful, the mysterious and the devil may care. It is a work that needs a particularly light and bright touch. Järvi and his orchestra, particularly the brass section, were clearly enjoying themselves here, relishing every absurd twist and turn. 

This performance was reviewed from the Elbphilharmonie video stream