Orchestre National de Lille

Sheffield International Concert Season

Friday 31st January 2020
Sheffield City Hall


RAVEL Mother Goose Suite 

DEBUSSY Images: Ibéria 

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.4

RAVEL La Valse


How pertinent it was having the Orchestre National de Lille in the Steel City on the dreaded ‘Brexit Day’. Their presence was so welcome at Sheffield City Hall, however. Bringing with them a nearly 100-strong orchestra, one truly admirable conductor and one award-winning pianist, this concert was set to be one of the highlights in the Sheffield International Concert Season. 

Opening with Ravel’s 1911 orchestral suite, Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), the suite showcases five segments of music from French fairy tales. The winds were dominant throughout the suite, with their tones intertwining in such a magical way. Maestro Bloch immersed himself in the music, which was made even more pertinent without his use of a score. Each movement brought a new character, with the orchestra keeping up with Bloch’s ambitious tempi and stage presence. The clarity from the intricate lines shone through, making this a great opening to the concert.

Closing the first half was Debussy’s Ibéria from his triptych Images. Full of quintessential Spanish elements like rhythms, harmonies and themes, Ibéria is a truly spine tingling work to hear. The orchestral colours were dominant throughout the work, with the percussion adding a particular je nais se quois to the timbres and textures. The dynamics were well controlled and added to the sheer drama for the listener. The orchestra also did well to swell in sound and to not overwhelm the large concert hall. It was lucky to hear this work performed as it seems the orchestra did not perform this work at all the venues on their UK tour, instead performing Debussy’s La Mer. 

After the interval there were big changes on stage, namely the massive grand piano in the middle of the much-reduced orchestra. Award-winning pianist Eric Lu took to the stage to perform Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Premiered in 1807, with the composer at the piano, the concerto is one of Beethoven’s most ‘experimental’. Opening with a sense of calmness from Eric Lu, the orchestra kept control of the drama, potentially stripping the concerto of some of its darkness. 

The crisp detail from Lu showed his humble virtuosity which kept the audience hanging on his every note. The second movement was the highlight for me. The orchestras bold responses towards Lu’s delicate statements created the ideal atmosphere for this movement. The finale showcased the orchestras energy and flair for the repertoire. With moments of fragility and forceful energy, it’s no wonder that Lu won the 2018 International Leeds Piano Competition with the same concerto. Sheffield audiences were then treated to a sprightly Chopin Prelude as an encore.

It created some organised chaos when the piano was wheeled off the stage and the whole stage had to be reset for the last piece. This created quite a big gap between the pieces, which on the one hand was quite disruptive and it became easy to lose focus, but on the other hand it was quite amusing watching the pandemonium on stage.

The low rumble to start of Ravel’s shunned ballet music from La Valse quickly set the scene. With fragments of grotesque melodies mixed with shards of a traditional waltz rhythm, the orchestra’s interpretation of La Valse had me at the edge of my seat. The aggressive swells from the nearly 100-strong orchestra was truly magical and the violent ending had the audience hanging on every twist and turn. 

Bloch, again without a score, was almost dancing on the podium during this finale. His infectious attitude towards the music certainly entertained everyone. As the music progressed he added to the drama, making it a brilliant all-round concert experience. 

Through rapturous applause and a standing ovation from some of the audience, Bloch made a strong speech about the connection between France and the UK – a message that has been threaded through this ground-breaking UK tour.

Just when we thought it was all over, Bloch announced an encore, which was met with cheers from the audience. Performing the fourth movement of Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnole, the orchestra brought this concert to a triumphant close…again.

The Orchestre National de Lille have already visited Birmingham, London and Newcastle, and on their last day they will be at Leeds Town Hall performing the same programme as Sheffield received. The infectious smiles from within the orchestra makes me hope that these connections won’t fade away too soon and it’s not too long until this orchestra return to the UK with another tour-de-force of a programme.

Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020


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