Expectations ran high for this evening of French masterpieces conducted by the LPO’s prodigiously talented principal guest conductor Yannick Nzet-Sguin.The concert not only met those expectations, it far exceeded them as the LPO’s partnership with Nzet-Sguin proved once again to be the most exciting in London.Having delivered many superlative performances of the German repertoire, it came as no surprise that their first major foray into the French classics was equally as revelatory.
If there was once criticism that could be levelled at this all-French programme, it would be that there were too many rich French concoctions on the menu. In an informative pre-concert talk the evening’s conductor, Yannick Nzet-Sguin, said as much but with the LPO on such tremendous form a little indigestion at the end of the concert was a small price to pay for an evening packed with so many musical riches. Deciding the order of the programme can’t have been easy, but to start with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe: Symphonic Fragments, Second Series was puzzling. With its dazzling orchestration, large orchestral forces and orgasmic climax it usually concludes a concert rather than opens it. Nevertheless, Nzet-Sguin brought out all the iridescent orchestral colours of the ‘Lever de jour’ and the concluding ‘Danse gnrale’ possessed an appropriate air of savagery.
This coruscating performance was followed by a glowing account of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Nzet-Sguin and the orchestra perfectly capturing the sense of nostalgia that pervades the piece whilst revelling in the adventurous harmonies that the composer uses throughout the work. Pianists Melvyn Tan and Ronald Brautigam then delivered a witty rendition of Poulenc’s Concerto in D minor for two pianos and orchestra. Poulenc draws on a wide range of references for this work, from Mozart to music-hall and all the twists and turns were expertly managed by both soloists, whilst Nzet-Sguin and the orchestra provided the vivid accompaniment.
After the interval we were treated to outstanding performances of two of the most important works from the impressionist period, namely Debussy’s Prlude l’aprs-midi d’un faune and La Mer. The shifting harmonies and chromatic tonal language which Debussy employs in the former piece sounded as original and revelatory as they must have done at the premiere in 1894, and thanks to some outstanding playing, especially from guest principal flute Karen Jones, we were magically transported to an imaginative, languid, sultry afternoon. Under Nzet-Sguin’s inspired baton the orchestra positively oozed Mediterranean warmth.
The evening concluded with a rousing, no-holds barred performance of La Mer. The delicate, restrained opening brilliantly evoked the shimmering waves at dawn and gave notice that this was going to be a performance full of orchestral colour and detail and so it proved to be. Each section of the LPO played outstandingly well, there was a real snarl in the brass as Nzet-Sguin was at pains to stress the deep-rooted violence of the work as well as the more pensive, lyrical moments. It was a fitting climax to a glorious evening of music making and confirmation that when Nzet-Sguin is at the helm of the LPO, there’s no other musical partnership in London to touch them.