Surfing the 

New Year in Paris 


What with travel disruptions, strikes and unrest in France, and an aborted Paris trip, these past weeks haven't panned out as planned. C'est la vie. With Arte and late night YouTube keeping us company not all has been lost. Worthwhile new postings have ranged from elevated spirituality to pulverising physicality, rarefied fantasy to indefinable poetry. High artistry, high definition playing, high resolution audiovisuals.


“A stunning acoustic alchemy between orchestral colours and the ethereal”, Esa-Pekka Salonen's virtuoso tour-de-force with the Orchestre de Paris at the Philharmonie earlier this season (September 14) showcased the kind of programming he does best. Debussy's cantata La damoiselle élue (1887-88 revised orchestrally 1902), based on Rossetti's 1850 The Blessed Damozel, floated in a time zone and luminously shadowed pre-Raphaelite land of its own. The two soloists - soprano Axelle Fanyo, mezzo Fleur Barron – displayed a degree of understanding and projection, a composed, richly hued application of voice, belying their youth. Orchestral prelude, subsequent choral forces (Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris, Choeur de jeunes de l'Orchestre de Paris), the C major delirium of farewell, blended as headily and yieldingly as the poet's own painting of the subject. “The blessed damozel leaned out From the gold bar of Heaven; Her eyes were deeper than the depth Of waters stilled at even; She had three lilies in her hand, And the stars in her hair were seven” (six, curiously, in the 1878 painting). Fruit of his Stanford period, pre Reich/Riley, Ligeti's thirteen-minute Clocks and Clouds (1972-73) for twelve-part female choir (Accentus) and small orchestra (trumpets but otherwise no brass, string minus violins, voices staged left replacing them) is for Salonen akin to “a beautiful diamond, a dream-like hallucination”. The composer's own description was of “a continuous transition between clock ticking and fog tissue. The clockworks are gradually dissolved and transformed into clouds of mist … strangely luminous”. From intricately woven opening woodwind (five each of low register flutes and mid-range clarinets mezzopiano) to rhythmically incised closing vocals, Salonen's economical clarity of beat journeyed us between determinacy (clocks) and indeterminacy (clouds), tropospheric jet streams parting, opposing and converging along the way. “Divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation, destruction, reconstruction, the play of life and death … love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm”: Messiaen's post-war Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48 revised 1990) made for an epic second half. Bertrand Chamayou took the piano obbligato in his stride, glittering, thundering and riding the waves, while Nathalie Forget's ondes Martenot was balanced and projected more clearly than usually witnessed. Emphasising discipline before indulgence, Salonen steered a cogent, structurally precise course. But, understandably, let licence take over in the F sharp major catharsis of the closing bars – F sharp: Messiaen's “mystical experience of superhuman love”, Scriabin's “bright blue” key, Liszt's “benediction” - the ever-intensifying “très long” triad of the score stretched to a blazing forty seconds.

© Berrnard Martinez

There's an irrepressibly seductive February '22 Barbican clip of Fleur Barron , with her mentor Barbara Hannigan and the LSO, velvet-toning the Barcarolle from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Offenbach – Prussian Jew, Catholic convert, satirist of Napoleon III's Second Empire – puts one in a good mood. The 'Mozart of the Boulevards', parodist supreme, genius. Entrust him to great performers, right conductors, pedigree orchestras, a glass or two of fireside cognac, and a treat of an evening can be guaranteed. Paris circa 1855-80. Through pages of superlatively famous, exuberantly rhythmic, entrancingly endowed melody, the Orchestre National de France's recent New Year fest of overtures, arias and set-numbers transported us viscerally, playfully, amorously, into a theatreland of high-kicking, curvacious elation (l'Auditorium de Radio France, 30 December). Turbines at optimum thrust, not for a second did anyone coast, the music accorded respect, adoration and generous smile. Energy, tension and delivery on a knife edge. With Enrique Mazzola, music director of Chicago's Lyric Opera, in charge, style and manner, tightness of attack and ensemble, bigness of paragraphing and phrasing - economic stick technique, subtle gesture and agreeable bonhomie at his disposal, sheerly in love with the warmth and spread of orchestral sound before him (the sighing solos in Orpheus and the Underworld of impeccable fragrance) – ensured a riveting celebration. Cyrille Dubois's tenor contribution, stagecraft and visual/vocal mobility to the fore, responsive in his nuances, delighted. Stealing the night, however, was the ridiculously brilliant Patricia Petibon, one of William Christie's rising “innocents” way back. What can she not do? She flirts and dallies, ravishes and consumes. Feline of hip and toe, her body shudders and pulses, the lightest of accents swaying off the downbeats, her hands expressing an infinity of emotions and caresses. Her wide-eyed gaze ponders the world wondrously, then, at the merest toss of her tumbling red curls, no warning given, focuses in with laser-beamed ferocity. Long the thespian, her performance was about movement and timing, flying virtuosic heights, stretching caesuras and cadences sensuously, achingly, homing in on the moment. Minimum props (two comedic hats principally), a pair of costume changes (blue first half, cerise/white second). Vocals, diction, choreography, projection ... a twenty-four carat masterclass in musical theatre. Her 'Nous voilà enfin' duet with Cyrille (fabulously committed) glitteringly upped the closing patter (Il signor Fagotto). 'Ah, que j'aime les militaires' (La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, she, straight-faced, fixing our colour-spectacled chef d'orchestre with a trim black moustache), was of an order (and culminating speed) leaving the top competition, on and off record, largely standing. Offenbach would have melted at her feet.

In 2021/22 (same venue) Cristian Măcelaru, music director of the Orchestre National de France, displayed a different New Year touch. Similarly Gallic repertory, beginning with Berlioz (who, contrasting Debussy, held Offenbach in low regard), but of an essentially orchestral rather than operatic ilk, less light-fingered or mercurial. Antiphonal violins and violas, double-basses left of stage. His Chabrier - España, the Habanera encore in the composer's 1888 orchestration – had plenty of time to breathe, tapestries of life and scene unfolding almost cinematically, always sensitively. Ravel's colour variations, his 'concerto' for orchestra – the Bolero - came up near fresh-minted, the playing refined and carefully placed yet carefree in spirit, the progressive prominence of kettledrums and bass-lines reflecting a trend throughout the evening. Two works rewarded principals from within the orchestra. Debussy's clarinet Rhapsodie – the opulent-toned Carlos Ferreira of Philharmonia association (Mazzola's exclusive opening soloist in Orpheus); and Saint-Saëns's Havanaise - with Sarah Nemtanu, joint concertmaster since 2002, in atmospherically haunting mood. Compulsive, commanding soloists, neither short of temperament or personality. 

© Holger Talinski

François-Xavier Roth's currently touring French Masterworks programme marking the twentieth anniversary of Les Siècles, the premiere ensemble he founded in 2003 (Théâtre Raymond Devos, Tourcoing, 5 January). Roth never short-changes players, audiences or producers. Clever, thoughtful planning, unforced scholarship, crisply attentive rehearsals, pragmatic approachability promise a mega-energy return, every year a well funded new adventure in prospect, culture and quality at a premium. Still to come this season are Pelléas et Mélisande (Lille), a Stravinsky/Poulenc double-bill (Théâtre des Champs-Elysée), and a period German instrument Flying Dutchman (Tourcoing). From the poetic to the orgasmic, familiarity proving no obstacle (Dukas's Sorcerer’s Apprentice, tartly painted, germanely dramatised), Debussy's Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune (intoxicating) and Ravel's La valse (menacing) book-tailed this programme. Comparatively second-tier options beyond France (our loss), Roussel's Second Bacchus et Ariane Suite and Massenet's Scènes alsaciennes found Roth idiomatically empathic. The latter was particularly effective in its bass resonances and hard drums - gritty folksiness, the horns of the field, rampant fête encouraged rather than cosmeticised. Yet not without lyrical sentiment. The clarions, tambours and bell of the finale's retraite française. The third movement scenario - Alphonse Daudet's "great silence of summer afternoons ... the long avenue of lime trees in the shade of which, hand in hand, walked a couple in love, she, gently leaning towards him, murmuring very low: 'Will you always love me?'” The nostalgia of the string-doused encore, Bizet's L'Arlésienne Adagietto (Daudet again) - Orpheus's beasts tamed, wafting mimosa, Mallarmé's faun at apricot dusk.

Arte's tribute to the late Lars Vogt, pianist, conductor, discerning musician, who died from cancer last September, aged fifty-one, reminded of days when the sun would never seem to set. The first half of a breezy Mozart evening he gave in the gardens of the 17th century Hôtel de Sully with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris led by Deborah Nemtanu (younger sister of the Orchestre National's Sarah N). Natural horns and trumpets, woodwind standing, strings sitting (July 2020). An effervescent Marriage of Figaro Overture, not too fast but with vitality, everyone allowed time to articulate, phrase and exchange. Never routine. Magali Mosnier, queenly première flute of the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France (in which capacity, mind, we see less of her these days than formerly), partnered by Valéria Kafelnikov, harpist with Les Siècles, unsurprisingly excelled in the Flute and Harp Concerto, written in Paris in 1778. Mosnier's charm and alluring good taste is infectious. Affectation or mannerism isn't her style. Listening, encouraging, engaging with her colleagues, making chamber music is, even when dispatching the bravura solos of the repertory high above massed symphonic forces. Kafelnikov graced the harp part with the kind of definition and moulded purity of tone you want to hear but rarely do. Two soloists at the top of their game, Vogt's lithe, galant, expressively pliable accompaniment framing them graciously. Lengthy cadenzas, uncredited. Pamina's Aria for encore. Time-suspending notturno then, memoriam aeterna now.

26 January 2023