If John Barry’s music represents the action hero in 1960s and 1970s cinema, the music of Michel Legrand calls to mind the quirky, the imported art-house films, and it summons, along with the music of Hardy and Gainsbourg, the whimsical and slightly licentious atmosphere of a France making its own answer to the post-war world through the nouvelle-vague films by the likes of Jean-Luc Goddard and Jacques Demy.
Legrand, now aged 86, is still very much a musical force; he released two albums last year and began a two-year world tour in January this year; Tuesday evening’s concert of orchestral arrangements of his music by Paul Bateman – accompanied by video clips from the films featured – at the Festival Hall being one stop on the road. Although his voice is not as strong as it was, Legrand has lost none of his skill as a conductor or performer; he directed The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for around half of the pieces with a minimalist precision, and handed over the baton to Bateman for the other half, so that he could add his own pianistic brilliance to the mix. In this latter respect, the two tributes to Miles Davis (Dingo Lament and Dingo Rock), cleverly avoiding any solo trumpet work and allowing the piano, under Legrand’s agile fingers to conjure Davis’ flexible style, were masterpieces of the jazz idiom.
As a retrospective on Legrand’s oeuvre the evening catered very much to his sixties and seventies heyday, and there was, sadly, nothing of his 21st-century work, but it was a treat to hear the classics in the intelligent arrangements by Bateman, although the lack of vocals (particularly in the extended suite from the soundtrack of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, at least half of whose wistfully triste character is created, in the original, by the voices of Danielle Licari and José Bartel) was occasionally noticeable.
The concert, nonetheless, covered several styles: the brooding, fractured danger of Ice Station Zebra, the delicious Stravinsky pastiche accompanying a cartoon from The Picasso Summer, the Jewish-American feel of an extended set of variations from Streisand’s Yentl, the lush ,singing-strings melodies of Gable and Lombard and Summer of ’42, some insistent rhythmic work from Le Mans, and the bluesy quality of Dingo Lament and (oddly) some of the music from the soundtrack of Robert Fuest’s 1970 iteration of Wuthering Heights.
It was also good to hear examples from Legrand’s lesser-known soundtracks featured in films by Jean-Paul Rappenau: the expansive theme for violins from La vie de château; the lovely Haydn/Beethoven pastiche from Les Mariés de l’an Deux and the big horn melody from Le sauvage.
But it was the classics that the audience came for, and the orchestra – on top form all evening – and Legrand did not disappoint. The suite from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was cleverly constructed, introducing the main theme (‘Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi’) covertly at first, hidden under brass harmony, and allowing the collection of other movements (some nicely swung quicksteps and up-tempo jazz tangos, as well as a lonely clarinet for ‘Recit de Cassard’) to take centre stage, before its grand return for swooshing violins and horn counter-melody. And finally the number that, given its many covers, must have made Legrand a wealthy man: ‘The Windmills of your Mind’ from Jewison’s classic The Thomas Crown Affair, featuring the most immoderate game of chess ever played. It was introduced as a grandiose piano concerto (with Legrand playing) that morphed into a jazz-piano riff and a slow quickstep, finishing, after an impressive cadenza, on a massive discordant brass chord that twinkled away into nothing.