Pascal Rophé’s Impressively Gallic Conducting Experienced in London

19/11/2015

 Franck, Ravel, Berlioz: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Pascal Rophé (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.11.2015. (AS)

Franck: Le chasseur maudit

Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

François-Xavier Roth, who was originally scheduled to conduct this concert, had to withdraw owing to illness. The opening item in his programme was to have been Boulez’s Livre pour cordes, to be played as part of the composer/conductor’s ninetieth birthday celebrations. It was something of an irony that his replacement, Pascal Rophé, currently Music Director of the Orchestra National des Pays de la Loire, has worked with Boulez and has conducted his music, but clearly was unable to prepare Livre pour cordes at very short notice, or indeed any other suitable score by the French maître.

So on the one hand it was a disappointment that the programme had to be changed, and the substitution of Franck for Boulez was certainly a little bizarre. On the other hand, Franck is a much-neglected composer in orchestral concerts these days (even the once popular Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra has vanished from the repertoire), and it was very good to hear his music for a change.

Le chasseur maudit is not one of Franck’s greatest scores, and it certainly lacks that individual quality of refined sensuality to be found in his best compositions, but it is a vigorous, rousing kind of piece, even if it is a little repetitive in its use of thematic material. It needs to be propelled energetically, and Pascal Rophé at once showed his mettle in securing a taut, dramatic reading of the score. He obtained clear, precise playing from the BBC SO: the style of performance was very Gallic, and reminiscent of such conductors as Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux.

Back in August Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gave an outstandingly brilliant yet poetic performance of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto at a BBC Promenade Concert, and expectations were high that he would produce something special in the less favoured Left-Hand Concerto. And so he did. With entirely sympathetic support from Rophé and the orchestra he gave an outstanding display of left hand virtuosity and brilliance, but his command of technique was put entirely at the service of the concerto’s ironic yet defiant emotional spirit. His playing during the quieter solo passages was exquisite, and overall his was a most satisfying and very moving performance.

Performances of the Symphonie fantastique are pretty frequent in London’s concert halls and it remained to be seen whether Pascal Rophé would provide something out of the norm in his performance. This he most certainly did, but not through any mistaken quirks of interpretation, which sometimes afflict performances of this work. Once again, one was made aware that a French conductor was in charge of this very French work. As in the Franck piece, precision and clarity were at the forefront of Rophé’s conducting. He kept the music moving forward almost to the point of driving it hard, but its natural expression was allowed to flower. In the second movement, “Un bal” the tempo was quite brisk and the rhythmic pulse was quite strong: there were no Romantic lingerings. Even in the quiet country scenes of the third movement there was a strong underlying pulse, with the cor anglais solo most beautifully played by Alison Teale. It was a classical landscape that came into view, with no extraneous emotional interference.

After a straightforwardly delivered “March to the Scaffold”, with the execution somewhat brutally depicted, Rophé brought out the wild quality of the last-movement “Dream of a Sabbath Night” brilliantly. The playing was highly charged rhythmically, starkly dramatic, and quite harsh in expression. Overall it was a most impressive and refreshing view of the familiar work, and the audience made up for its lack of numbers with a most enthusiastic response.

Alan Sanders

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