United Kingdom Ravel, Debussy Beethoven – French Landscapes: Eric Lu (piano), Orchestre National de Lille / Alexandre Bloch (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London. 29.1.2020. (CC)
Ravel – Suite: Ma mère l’Oye; La valse
Debussy – La Mer
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Not unexpectedly, the shadow of Brexit hung over this evening, with speeches at the pre-concert event and a small offering from Alexandre Bloch to the audience all extending a firm hand of continued friendship. As Bloch pointed out, Lille is only a hop, skip and a Eurostar away (he didn’t use quite those words, in fairness).
The Orchestre National de Lille is a fine ensemble. Founded by Jean-Claude Casadesus (who retains the title ‘founding conductor’), its life under its present title began in 1976; its precursor was in fact the Orchestre National de l’ORTF de Lille, which was made defunct in 1974. The orchestra’s present tour took in Birmingham (January 28), and continues at The Sage, Gateshead (30), Sheffield City Hall (31) and Leeds Town Hall (1 February). At the helm is Alexandre Bloch, who took the post of Musical Director and Conductor in September 2016. Winner of the 2012 Donatella Flick London Symphony Orchestra Conducting Competition, he has previously accompanied the LSO on a tour of Kuwait.
An unsurprisingly Gallic flavour ran through the evening, with the supplement of Beethoven’s anniversary which was honoured via the Fourth Piano Concerto. Bloch conducted from memory all of the works apart from the concerto, a sign, it turned out, of the way he has internalised this music. The performance of the Ma mère l’Oye suite was stunning in its sensitivity, the gossamer ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ (‘Pavane of the sleeping princess’) a textbook study in pastel orchestral shades with beautiful woodwind contributions. The stunning string sound was perfectly complemented by the rhythmic precision and play of ‘Laideronette’ (which boasted a a splendid gong!). The sheer beauty of many of the solos was justification enough for this performance (including the violin solos of the leader, Ayako Tenaka). Bloch’s clear beat ensured meticulous precision of ensemble, but it was perhaps the level of audible detail that was the most defining factor here; a level of detailing that carried through the entire evening.
Debussy’s La Mer is obviously one of the cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire; but to hear it like this, with such assurance from the players, enabled it to appear as if it had been composed yesterday. Atmosphere was certainly there, but so was discipline, the trumpets so together, the wind remarkable in their fluidity, and again some lovely solo violin contributions. Allowing the music to breathe just the right amount, Bloch shaped the performance with real care, the central ‘Jeux de vagues’ a proper tour de force. But it was the finale that was the real triumph, Debussy’s processes emerging here as perfectly natural, wedded with perfect clarity (the fast, muted trumpets preternaturally together).
It was nice to place the piano concerto in the second half. Eric Lu, prize winner in the 2015 Chopin Competition and First Prize Winner at Leeds in September 2018, is the real deal. He is a pupil of Jonathan Biss at the Curtis Institute, but the placement of this concert in close proximity to Biss’s Beethoven Cycle at the Wigmore Hall enables speculation that the pupil has overtaken the master. Lu recorded this very concerto for Warner with the Hallé Orchestra under Edward Gardner, a fine reading in itself; but this Cadogan Hall performance went further still in revealing just what Lu is capable of. If the strings could perhaps have been just a touch more disciplined on their first entrance, it was only that the slightly ragged ensemble was heard against Lu’s impeccable opening: warm, elegant, with finely judged placement of chords. Bloch conducted without baton, as if inviting the intimacy of this concerto; it was interesting how, in his longer rests, Lu angled his body so he could watch Bloch intently. There was clear, and mutual, respect between the two in evidence. Moments of the utmost mystery nourished the soul, while elsewhere the ear was ravished by Lu’s impeccably even, crystalline trills. Structurally, the first movement made perfect sense, the cadenza containing as much sweetness as it did fire. And how right Lu was to wait just that split second before his first retort to the strings in the central movement, a moment of purest magic. The incredible aspect of this reading was that it was the piano’s soliloquising on its own that was the calming influence on the strings; less a reaction to them, more an unflappability against which they inevitably became a spent force. Trills took on an electricity one associates far more readily with late Beethoven. The finale, taken at a fast lick, was full of energy, dialogues between piano and orchestra perfectly judged; the warmth of the viola section’s sound perhaps deserves special mention.
A Chopin encore acted as something of a bridge between the Beethoven and the Ravel which was to follow: Chopin’s Prélude in E minor, Op.28/4, utterly ravishing.
Finally, Ravel’s hallucinatory La valse in the finest performance I have ever heard. From the beautifully low, rhythmic rumble of the opening through to the bright light, helter-skelter climax, this was the perfect invocation of the spirit of the waltz. Even when the audience was at the edge of their seats towards the end, Bloch’s underlying control of his orchestra was total.
An encore was inevitable: ‘Feria’ from Rapsodie espagnole, full of bright lights and infectious rhythms. Superb.