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Monday, April 18, 2011

Concert Review: The Rose Lines of...Vienna?

Daniele Gatti conducts the Orchestre National de France
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Photo © Guy Vivien
Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall featured a concert by the Orchestre National de France, which rang down the curtain on this year's Symphonic Masters series sponsored by Lincoln Center itself. The concert saw the French orchestra offering a unique perspective on German music. Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto was paired with the dancing waltz rhythms of Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel. Daniele Gatti conducted.

The concert opened with the Beethoven, switching the normal order of putting the short piece (Ravel's La valse) first and the concerto second. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet played the solo part with great intensity of attack, making a staccato entry in the first movement and taing a relentless approach to Beethoven's cadenzas.

In this opening movement, M. Bavouzet  kept his foot off the pedal, preferring to let the notes jump from his fingers. He played with great dexterity if not especial warmth. It was as if he chose to take all of Beethoven's inspiration and hone it to a single keen point.

The performance was more lyrical in the next two movements: the laid-back Largo and the lilting Rondo. M. Bavouzet's tone also mellowed in the slow movement, sweeping through Beethoven's challenging cadenzas and playing with a somewhat sweeter tone.

Mr. Gatti provided skilled, if not especially distinguished accompaniment, letting M. Bavouzet dominate the proceedings. If the ONF has a distinctive section, it is in their woodwinds. The French bassoons (most American orchestras use the German Heckel models) provides a different timbre to these ears, a rich, ruby sound that complements the strings and warm brass.

The orchestra doubled in size for the Suite from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, twenty minutes of potpurri from the German composer's popular comic opera. The problem with playing these exceprts was two-fold. By eliminating the voice, the silvered, lyric quality of a soprano (or mezzo) soaring over Strauss' scintillating orchestration is lost. (An English or French horn does not cut it, no matter how beautifully it is played.) Mr. Gatti also struggled to bring his band to a ribald, Viennese climax--but the overall effect was one of politeness and competence.

The musicians looked and sounded a lot happier playing La valse, Maurice Ravel's 1919 ballet score. It was with this piece that the potential and power of this French orchestra finally barrelled forth. La valse is a less famous cousin of Bolero, with more musical development as it surges to a fortissimo climax.

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