Orchestre National de Lille review

BEETHOVEN GATECRASHES RAVEL AND DEBUSSY

Orchestre National de Lille
Symphony Hall ****

Perhaps it was the ongoing logistical difficulties of getting into and out of the Broad Street area (and whatever was going off on the outbound Hagley Road afterwards, don't ask) which made the audience for this concert embarrassingly small, when Birmingham was entertaining a large business and press contingent from France, or was it a case of under-publicisation?
Whatever, the Orchestra National de Lille made heroic efforts, playing with an elegance and generosity of spirit which deserved better. Their programme was a strange one: three fin-de-siecle French masterpieces gate-crashed by Beethoven's most poetic piano concerto -- and it was the Beethoven which came off best, of which more later.
Alexandre Bloch was the conductor, under-characterising Ravel's Mother Goose Suite (we could have done with more coarseness from the Beast's contrabassoon in colloquy with the Beauty's gracious clarinet, for example), but the strings were always delicate and flowing, with some wonderful solos from concertmaster Ayako Tanaka.
Strange to have Debussy's awesome La Mer not at the end of a concert, and here again there was a lack of character, of mystery (and indeed some wispy ensemble). The famous cello passage (we can never expect the 16 instruments for which Debussy scored) in the opening movement was gorgeous (those Lille strings again), but we needed more "lift" in the waltz which moves the central movement towards its culmination, and there was little sense of majestic ocean-liner climax at the end of the concluding Dialogue du vent et de la mer.
Strange, too, to have the concerto after the interval, but this offering proved most suited to the refined, almost restrained approach of the Lille players under Bloch. Eric Lu was soloist in this Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, the work with which he won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018, and it was not difficult here to hear why.
This was an account rippling with pellucid articulation, positive in its forward movement whilst relishing the poetry in every bar (and finding Haydnesque skittishness in the cadenzas), and joined by Bloch's empathetic orchestral collaboration (and how exciting to hear hard beaters for the timpani's eventual appearance).
After Lu's Chopin E minor Prelude encore, there was extensive stage rearrangement from the Viennese-style string placings for the concerto, and then came Ravel's La Valse, efficiently delivered, but with little sense of haunted mystery (that word again) or doomed charm.
The rhythmic dislocation as the cataclysm approached was well-managed, thanks to an impressive percussion section, underpinned by an imperious bass drum, so full marks to the orchestral playing, not so many for interpretation.
Christopher Morley

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