Strasbourg Philharmonic at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

The title of Ravel’s ‘La valse’ may suggest cosy images of elegant dancers circling under crystal chandeliers but underneath the glittering surface something violent, dark and disturbing lurks. Composed shortly after World War I had devastated Europe, Ravel’s apotheosis of the quintessential Viennese dance is the soundtrack to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. The Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra under the dynamic Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja captured its essence perfectly from its opening sinister bass rumblings and odd squeaks and creaks from the upper strings – as if the music were assembling itself – to the apocalyptic ending as the waltz gyrates off into oblivion – absolutely splendid. This is not a big-name orchestra but one of quality in all sections. The horns, for example, were tremendous in Franck’s supernatural tone poem ‘Le chasseur maudit’, their opening chorale signalling the dawning Sunday morning was like burnished gold in Symphony Hall’s generous acoustic and their hunting fanfares – as the cursed hunter meets his grisly end – were suitably stentorian.

In Ravel’s fairytale ‘Ma mère L'Oye’ suite Letonja coaxed crisp and characterful playing, showcasing the Strasbourg’s excellent wind section; the bassoons and contrabassoon’s harrumphing bringing the enchanted Beast (of ‘ Beauty and the Beast’) to life in his awkward romanticism. There was an incisive rhythmic attack in the chinoiserie of ‘Empress of the Pagodas’ and the swooning romantic climax of ‘The Fairy Garden’ was irresistible with some delicious string playing.

Every touring orchestra needs a sure-fire hit concerto with a virtuoso player who is guaranteed to please the audience. Here it was Nikolai Lugansky and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2. Lugansky is a familiar face at Symphony Hall after his Rachmaninov concerto series with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo. I reviewed his titanic performance of Rachmaninov’s third concerto with the CBSO in this hall 2015 which had me reaching for superlatives. The same was true here. The familiar was never hackneyed, the sentiment never glutinous, with nothing meretricious in Rachmaninov’s formidable demands on the soloist. Lugansky encompassed it all with bravura, dash and elegance – the rapturous applause well merited. The concert began with a rip-roaring Berlioz ‘Le Carnaval romain’ overture - Letonja capitalizing on Berlioz’s double-flourish ending – and ended with two fine encores, Fauré’s ‘Sicilienne’ from ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ and a supercharged ‘Farandole’ from Bizet’s ‘L’Arlésienne’ suite.

Norman Stinchcombe

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