The Ile de France, the country's historic centre, includes the greater Paris area. Orchestre National d’Île de France was formed in 1974 (many of its current members are in their 20s and 30s) and covers an area inhabited by some 10 million people. Like the best French wines, this orchestra may not travel much outside France but there is nothing regional about its playing which has a sophistication and polish that are entirely metropolitan.
Ravel's delicious Mother Goose Suite made for the most subtle of introductions, the finesse and focus of the string-playing immediately apparent despite Yoel Levi's stolid tempo for the opening 'Pavane for the Sleeping Beauty'; this was playing of restraint and douceur, timbres unobtrusively right for this delicate music.
Wholly impressive was Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations with Tatjana Vassiljeva, a Rostropovich protégé. Perhaps because of her penchant for chamber and contemporary music – her repertoire includes Shchedrin, Dutilleux, Saariaho, Schnittke and Penderecki – Vassiljeva may have not have yet received the wider recognition accorded to several of her peers; yet she possesses immaculate intonation and total technical security, allied to a charismatic personality. In the Tchaikovsky the two gentlest Variations were projected on the very finest of threads whilst the exuberant finale was tossed off with real dash.
Whilst one might have queried the wisdom of programming the two large-scale works together (in the second half), but with an orchestra in which musicians listen to themselves and precisely judges balance, it is perfectly possible to perform music that might seem too powerful for the confines of Cadogan Hall with never an ugly sound. Quite possibly the range of venues in which Orchestre National d’Île de France normally performs – churches, theatres and outdoor venues as well its own concert hall – has heightened the musicians’ sense of acoustic.
The Debussy impressed, its more obvious danger-points expertly balanced and negotiated with certainty, the middle movement, ‘Jeux de vagues’, had a playfulness which reminded one that this is an orchestral 'sketch', not an showpiece. However, for all Levi's competence and the rightness of timbre, there was a curious mésalliance between this conductor and this particular music, Debussy's quintessential fluidité was sometimes replaced by a rather too metronomic approach.
Even more impressive was the Stravinsky, beautifully paced with superbly characterful wind solos, and with the most hypnotic string descent into the final apotheosis – such intensity and control in the string tremolo – and the first horn, Robin Paillette, entering with total security, a moment of purest frisson.
There were three encores, each from Bizet, despatched with panache and éclat, two from “Carmen”, the Prelude to Act One and, then, a delightfully insouciant account of ‘Danse bohemienne’, its relaxed opening allowing for some Beecham-esque pointing from the flutes. Finally there was the ‘Farandole’ from the music for “L'Arlésienne”.
- Cadogan Hall – Prague Symphony Orchestra on 9 May and Orquesta Nacional de España on 19th
- Cadogan Hall