Thursday 30 January 2020

A welcome chance to hear the Orchestra National de Lille under its music director Alexandre Bloch in London, in Ravel, Debussy and Beethoven

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 4 - Eric Lu, Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch (Photo Copyright Ugo Ponte ONL)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 4 - Eric Lu, Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch
(Photo Copyright Ugo Ponte ONL)
Ravel, Debussy, Beethoven; Eric Lu, Orchestra National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Lille-based orchestra makes its first visit to the UK in 20 years, in a programme of French music alongside Beethoven

The exact timing was accidental but the presence of the Orchestre National de Lille on tour in the UK during Brexit was deliberate. Whilst the orchestra's first visit to the UK for 20 years was most welcome indeed, the tour is intended to be part of wider cultural diplomacy to strengthen links (cultural, tourist and trade) between the UK and the Hauts de France region.

Under its musical director Alexandre Bloch, the Orchestre National de Lille gave the second concert of its tour at the Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 January 2020 as part of the hall's Zurich International Orchestra Series. The orchestra played Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye and La valse, and Claude Debussy's La mer, and were joined by the 2018 Leeds Piano Competition winner Eric Lu for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch (Photo Copyright Ugo Ponte ONL)
Orchestre National de Lille, Alexandre Bloch (Photo Copyright Ugo Ponte ONL)
The concert opened with a very full platform for Ravel's 1911 orchestral suite Ma mère l'Oye. Originally written as a piano duet work for children, each movement is based on a French fairy tale, '1. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant', '2. Petit Poucet', '3. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes', '4. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête', and '5. Le jardin féerique'. The sound quality of the orchestra in the first movement was very present, particularly the wind, with long distinct instrumental lines. Whilst French orchestras no longer have their own distinctive timbres, it is always fascinating to try to assess what makes the sound of an orchestra particular.
Here, Bloch seemed to favour clarity and detail, rather than an aetherial blend. In the second movement the lovely oboe solo was complemented by clear, straight string tone, and the bird-song moment was vivid indeed. Strong colours and intense detail featured in the third movement, along with perky rhythms and wisps of romance. There was a sinuous quality to the fourth movement's waltz, with a fine ebb and flow, plus a supremely characterful double bassoon as the Beast. The final movement was perhaps the most serious, full of shapely phrases with instrumental lines strongly present.

Bloch's apparent liking for creating effects via precision and clarity, collages of vivid detail rather than wispy evocation, continued in Debussy's La mer which was, in some ways, the least impressionist performance that I have heard, but still caught the subtle nuances of Debussy's writing. Some of this, of course, will be the effect of hearing what was actually rather a large orchestra in Cadogan Hall's relatively modest auditorium. And it says a lot for Bloch and the orchestra's precision and control that all the intense climaxes of the evening were carefully placed so as not to overwhelm the hall.

It has always fascinated me that Debussy completed La mer whilst in Eastbourne, the sea depicted in it is rather far removed from the sedate image of that seaside resort (in a letter to his publisher Debussy described it as 'a charming peaceful spot: the sea unfurls itself with an utterly British correctness'). 'De l'aube à midi sur la mer' started quietly, full of evocative detail and individual instrumental timbres, eventually creating a lovely rich tapestry of sound. Bloch certainly generated plenty of excitement, pacing the movement well and adding stabbing climaxes. When the sun hits the water, the cello theme showed off the cello section finely, with shapely phrases and rich textured sound.  Overall the strings of the orchestra did not have a luxuriant sound, but one which was expressively present. 'Jeux de vagues' continued the feeling of evocative detail with a fast changing palette of striking colours and a slow build of tension that really carried you along. 'Dialogue du vent et de la mer' opened with fine rumbles of thunder and a vivid trumpet. Bloch's tempo in the main section was quite steady, but with a fine restlessness in the bass. Again we appreciated the crisp detail and terrific climaxes, but also moments of quiet intensity with the energy building to a climax that was almost orgasmic.

After the interval there was a change of pace (and size of orchestra) as Eric Lu joined them for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Premiered in 1807, with the composer at the piano, the work gives the lie to the idea that all of Beethoven's middle-period works are about heroic struggle. There is something more contained and poetic about this work, even though it is structurally daring with the piano making the first move (something hitherto unheard of).

Eric Lu played the piano's opening phrase with almost dead-pan calmness, with orchestral response moving from intimacy to large-scale drama. Orchestrally this was quite a big boned interpretation, though Bloch kept the music flowing. Lu played with unshowy virtuosity, giving us great clarity of line and firmness of tone, though there were moments of excitement in the development section and some deft fingerwork in the cadenza. For the slow movement, the strong orchestral statements were answered by tender piano playing from Lu, creating a striking dialogue. Though the orchestra quietened during the movement, the drama did not lessen. For the lively final movement we had plenty of crisp and tight rhythms in the orchestra and perky playing from Lu, giving us a vigorous dialogue. Despite moments of poetry, the movement was full of vivid energy.

The audience responded strongly and were rewarded with a Chopin Prelude from Lu as an encore.

Moving from the Beethoven to Ravel's La valse required a considerable amount of removal on stage, a piano to move and many more players to accommodate. Whilst this did entail a rather extended gap between the two works, we had the compensation of being entertained by the organised chaos on stage.

The low throbbing and fragments of melody at the opening of Ravel's La valse firmly put us in 'haunted ballroom' mode. There was certainly nothing wispy about this dance, throughout there were hints of menace. Again, Bloch brought out the strong colours and timbres in the orchestra, and the strings slid and glided wonderfully. As the movement progressed the vivid details coalesced into music of neurotic intensity till Bloch, almost dancing on the podium, whipped things up to a terrific climax.

Though the concert proved rather longer than advertised, the orchestra gave us an encore, 'Feria' from Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnole.

The orchestra's tour continues this week, to Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds. I certainly hope that it is not 20 years till they return to the UK, but as one businessman from Lille told me afterwards, after all Lille is just over an hour away by train.

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