Oramo and the BBC Symphony Revive a Neglected French Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schmitt, Franck, Ravel and Sibelius: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 27.10.2017. (AS)

Schmitt – Symphony No.2, Op.137

FranckVariations symphoniques

Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Sibelius – Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52

Florent Schmitt is an intriguing musical figure. He was an ally of Stravinsky before the First World War, and he even influenced the Russian composer through his use of offbeat rhythms in the final ‘Danse de l’effroi’ of his best-known work, La tragédie de Salomé, composed in 1907: the devices used by Schmitt in this ferocious dance are clear precursors of those used in the final ‘Danse sacrale’ from Le sacre du printemps. But as the years passed, so did Schmitt’s reputation slip in the face of changing fashions in music and as a result of his increasing right-wing sympathies before and during the Second World War. Yet much of his output is worth investigating, as is the case with his Second Symphony, a late work completed in 1957 half a year before his death at the age of 87. All credit to Sakari Oramo for presenting this rarely performed work.

In its bouncy, intricate rhythms and pungent scoring the opening Assez animé movement is highly individual in its style, very Gallic in mood – but with perhaps an echo or two of Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. Lovely flowing melodies characterise the middle slow movement, where Schmitt creates a beautiful, reflective mood, and in the last movement, marked Animé a lighter mood returns, with spiky, intriguing and abrupt changes of tempo and pulse, and the most brilliant orchestration. Quite a piece for an octogenarian. Oramo and his players delivered a characterful, virtuosic performance.

Enter Jean-Eflam Bavouzet to play Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But alas, owing to a startling memory lapse, his delivery of his opening phrases bore only a passing resemblance to the music of the printed score. And his performance never quite recovered. There were more slips and some very awkward moments when Bavouzet seemed unsure of both himself and the music. What a great shame, since this wonderful, concise masterpiece, once so justifiably popular, has fallen into sad neglect during the last half-century, and deserves the strongest possible advocacy.

Ravel’s Left Hand Piano Concerto is no doubt a more regularly played item in Bazouvet’s repertoire and here he seemed quite a different pianist. His was a confident, masterly delivery of this difficult piece, full of emotion and vitality. As in the Franck work, Oramo conducted an exemplary, passionate account of the orchestral part, and as one would expect of this highly experienced Finnish conductor, his Sibelius seemed right on target, too. His direction of the Third Symphony’s first movement had admirable clarity, an abundance of energy and a sense of joyfulness; his phrasing of the middle Andantino had a lovely warmth and elegance, and he steered a confident, clear-sighted path through the complexities and contrasting moods of the finale.

The BBC SO played with great commitment and skill under its Chief Conductor, but this was no surprise, since we have come to expect high standards from this partnership.

Alan Sanders

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