Strasbourg Philharmonic, Bristol Beacon ★★★★☆
Vive la difference. French orchestras love the French language, in a pleasant way that we in this country can taste from time to time thanks to a French government scheme that supports orchestras that want to fly the flag abroad. The visitors currently on tour are 80 odd players from the main orchestra of Strasbourg, a city often said to be as German as it is French. To my ears he sounded properly French, and not just because the music he was playing was mostly native. It was the combination of clarity and sensitivity, and also good taste – although an evening deep dive into Russian romanticism, Rachmaninov on 2n.d Piano Concerto played by soloist Nikolai Lugansky, they created French polish and romantic wholeness can go together.
That special French quality was evident at the end of the opening piece, the forequarter of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival. At the end, the Roman revels speed up to a delirious climax – a moment when the brass usually let rip. But not here. Director Marko Letonja held them back. The result was a rich, properly balanced sound that was more satisfying than a vulgar blast.
The great composer’s organ 19 played more pleasantly in Le Chasseur MauditthFrance César Franck, who brought out the strange Gothic colors associated with this portrayal of a doomed hunter. The most refined of all was Ravel’s Mother Goose series, a series of fairy-tale scenes that unfolded with truly broken tenders. The oboist Sébastien Giott was wonderful in the quaint dance of the Empress of the Pagodas, and the clarinetist Sébastien Koebel in the far-off and long-ago Beauty and the Beast waltz. When Marko Letonja sent the last movement across The Fairy Garden my first reaction was “Hmm, too slow.” Eventually he and the players had convinced me that it was just right.
In Ravel’s La Valse, the last work on the program, the upward progression from the soft sinister darkness to the glee and champagne of the grand waltz melody was beautifully calibrated. Only the perfectly controlled ending is disappointing. One should feel an abyss beckoning in the final delirious moments.
But this was not all. In the middle of all the sensory shimmer was a beautiful piece of Russian romanticism, Rachmaninov’s 2n.d Piano Concerto. Russian pianist Lugansky, who developed a huge world reputation in Russian romantic music, seemed born to play this piece. He came on stage with a reticent, almost world-weary air, and refused to make this piece into the crowd-pleaser it often is. His deep bass notes at the beginning seemed to issue from the grave, and the contrasting melody was personal in a way that suggested something painful as much as tender.
The most memorable moment was when Lugansky launched the finale with a great and unyielding gravity; the most affecting came in the slow movement, where the slow release of the melody in the pianist’s right hand was intertwined with the flickering tendency of the keyboard. The soloist may get star billing, but it’s often a narrative dialogue with an orchestra player that’s very much about performance.
Playing again in Cadogan Hall tonight; cadoganhall.com
Braimah Kanneh-Mason & Plínio Fernandes, Jazz Café ★★★★☆
It is easy to feel that history is now declaring “The time has come” for classical music. The Arts Council seems to be giving up, audiences are getting greener, and life is so hard for musicians that many are leaving the field or moving to Germany , where the art form has its greatest powers.
But it is not all gloom. Outside the concert hall, there are green fragments of life in places you wouldn’t expect to find them; pubs, clubs, disused car parks. A new breed of promoters has emerged, keen to cater to a younger audience. One of the most daring is the touring season of the year to present “nights of noise” throughout the year ie. classical music played by small groups in “venues on the ground”.
On Wednesday, noisy nights came to the Jazz Café, the famous north London venue better known for presenting blues and funk musicians. I have spent many happy evenings there, enjoying the delicious cafe food on the upstairs balcony while listening to Sun Ra or Roy Ayers, or down amongst the swaying fans in the mosh pit where you are almost weak from the heat.
Considering the nature of the venue, you might expect a classic night gig to be minimalistic, or even a bit “out there”. What we really heard from the cellist Braimah Kanneh-Mason and the Brazilian guitarist Plínio Fernandes was music so sweet and so young Latin that it wouldn’t be out of place in a Savoy tea room.
Braimah is the latest musician to emerge from the famous British Kanneh-Mason clan of musicians, which includes piano sisters Isata and Jeneba and – most famously – cellist Sheku. It soon became clear that Braimah has the same charm and scrupulous musicianship that distinguishes his brothers, with a sweet tone and quick vibrato that took me back to the violinists of the pre-war era. In the soloist’s Double of Bach’s B minor Partita (an interesting and flawless choice), he disturbed the balanced process of the notes just enough to bring them to rhythmic life.
Fernandes had an energetic rhythmic swing on stage in Piazzola’s dance pieces but also showed a winning lyrical gift in two Brazilian numbers, Violetta Para’s Gracias a la Vida and Dilermando Reis’ Xodó Da Baiana. He was also an alert accompanist, slowing the pace almost imperceptibly to make room for Kanneh-Mason’s sensitive and discreet slides in Paganini’s Cantabile.
This young crowd all stood up and cheered after each number. When the cellist Hadewych van Gent entered, the mood became more reflective. They played a soulful Serbian folk song, a mystical depiction of the flat Baltic landscape from the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, and most affecting of all Ernst Bloch’s truly sonorous Prayer. It was amazing to see this sweaty dance space reduced to silence and filled with ancient melancholy.
To end the set, Fernandes and Kanneh-Mason gave us a final burst of musical genius with Sarasate and Manuel de Falla, sending us out into the rainy Camden night with a spring in our step. IH
For Fernandes and Kanneh-Mason’s remaining tour dates and details on noise nights, go to throughthenoise.co.uk