Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Bristol Beacon ★★★★☆
Live the difference. French orchestras really sound French, which we in this country can occasionally enjoy thanks to a French government scheme that supports orchestras that want to raise the flag abroad. The visitors currently on tour are the 80 or so players of the flagship orchestra of Strasbourg, a city often said to be as German as it is French. To my ears it sounded quite French, and not just because the music it played was largely homegrown. It was the combination of clarity and sensuousness, and also of good taste – although in the only deep dive of the evening into Russian romance Rachmaninov’s 2NL Piano concerto played by soloist Nikolai Lugansky, they proved that French-Polish and romantic fullness can go together.
That special French quality could be heard at the end of the opening piece, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. At the end, the Roman revelers rush to a frenzied climax – a moment when the brass normally lets loose. But not here. Conductor Marko Letonja stopped them. The result was a rich, well-balanced sound that was more satisfying than a vulgar explosion.
There was more pleasant, refined playing in Le Chasseur Maudit by the great organist-composer of 19ecentury France César Franck, who brought out the peculiar Gothic colors of this depiction of a doomed hunter. Most exquisite of all was Ravel’s Mother Goose suite, a series of fairytale scenes that emerged with truly heartbreaking tenderness. Oboist Sébastien Giott in the picturesque dance of the Empress of the Pagodas and clarinetist Sébastien Koebel in the distant and long-ago waltz from Beauty and the Beast were especially fine. When Marko Letonja launched the traced final part The Fairy Garden, my first reaction was: “Hmm, too slow.” By the end, he and the players had convinced me it was just right.
In Ravel’s La Valse, the final work on the programme, the upward movement from softly sinister darkness to the glitter and champagne of the great waltz melody was beautifully calibrated. Only the perfectly controlled ending disappointed. In those frantic final moments, you should feel an abyss beckoning.
But this was not all. Amid all that sensual glow was a beloved piece of Russian romance, Rachmaninov’s 2NL Piano concerto. Russian pianist Lugansky has built a huge worldwide reputation in Russian Romantic music, and it really seemed like he was born to play this piece. He came onto the stage with a reserved, almost world-weary air, refusing to make this piece the swooning crowd-pleaser it often is. His deep bass notes initially seemed to emerge from the grave, and the contrasting melody was intimate in a way that suggested both pain and tenderness.
The most impressive moment was when Lugansky launched the finale with enormous unrelenting gravity; the most moving came in the slow movement, where the slow unfolding of the melody in the pianist’s right hand intertwined with the caressing undulation in a clarinet. The soloist may get a star, but it is often a meaningful dialogue with an orchestra player that really makes a performance a success.
Performing again tonight at Cadogan Hall; cadoganhall.com
Braimah Kanneh-Mason & Plínio Fernandes, Jazz Café ★★★★☆
It’s easy to feel that history now says the time is ripe for classical music. The Arts Council seems to actively despise it, audiences are getting grayer and life has become so difficult for musicians that many are leaving the field or moving to Germany where those in power actually care about the art form.
But it’s not all gloom. Outside the concert hall, there are green shoots of life in places where you might not expect them; pubs, clubs, disused car parks. A new breed of promoter has emerged, eager to serve a younger audience. One of the boldest is offering a year-round touring season of “noise nights,” that is, classical music played by small groups at “grass-roots” venues.
On Wednesday, noise nights took place at the Jazz Café, the famous North London venue better known for showcasing earth-shaking blues and funk musicians. I’ve spent many pleasant evenings there, enjoying the delicious food in the café on the upstairs balcony while listening to Sun Ra or Roy Ayers, or among the waving fans in the mosh pit where you almost faint from the heat.
Given the nature of the venue, you’d expect a classic noise night gig to be downright minimalist, or even a bit “out there”. What we actually heard from cellist Braimah Kanneh-Mason and Brazilian guitarist Plínio Fernandes was music with such gentle nostalgia and Latin American charm that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Savoy tea room.
Braimah is the latest musician to emerge from the famous British Kanneh-Mason musician clan, which also includes piano-playing sisters Isata and Jeneba and – most famous of them all – cellist Sheku. It quickly became clear that Braimah has the same unassuming charm and meticulous musicianship that characterizes his siblings, with a sweet tone and fast vibrato that took me back to violinists of the pre-war era. In the Double of Bach’s solo Partita in B minor (an interesting, unflashy choice) he bent the even sequence of notes just enough to bring them to rhythmic life.
His onstage partner, Fernandes, had an energetic rhythmic swing in the Piazzola dance pieces, but also showed winning lyrical talent in two Brazilian numbers, Gracias a la Vida by Violetta Para and Xodó Da Baiana by Dilermando Reis. He was also an alert accompanist, slowing the tempo almost imperceptibly to make room for Kanneh-Mason’s delicately discreet slides in Paganini’s Cantabile.
The youthful audience lapped it all up and cheered exuberantly after each song. When Dutch cellist Hadewych van Gent joined the duo, the mood became more reflective. They played a longing Serbian folk song, a mysterious evocation of the flat Baltic landscape by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, and most moving of all Ernst Bloch’s very Jewish-sounding Prayer. It was extraordinary to see this sweaty dance space reduced to silence and infused with age-old melancholy.
To close the set, Fernandes and Kanneh-Mason gave us a final burst of virtuosity in music from Sarasate and Manuel de Falla, sending us all bouncing into the rainy Camden night. IH
For Fernandes and Kanneh-Mason’s remaining tour dates and details about noise nights, visit throughthenoise.co.uk