Curated by Wendy Clarke, Associate Principal Flute of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra since 1991, “French Delights” promised to be a degustation of choice French delicacies prior to sitting down to a substantial Sunday roast. Instead of emphasising the light of “delights” as in lightweight, what we were given was a feast for the ear and the spirit.
The two-hour program drew on French compositions ranging from the Baroque to the early 20th century. Some were presented in their original instrumentation while others were arranged for a small chamber group playing modern instruments. Wendy Clarke was joined by some of the MSO’s most illustrious players: Tair Khisambeev (violin), Matthew Tomkins (violin), Fiona Sargeant (viola), Elina Faskhi ((cello), Ben Hanlon (double bass), David Thomas (clarinet) and Melina van Leeuwen (harp). Just by reading this line-up, it was clear that listeners would be in for a special treat, so it was small wonder that a sizable queue had built up outside the Iwaki Auditorium long before the concert began. Evidently, word had spread that these Sunday morning concerts were among the best value in town for classical music lovers.
Many audience members did not have the program that included Benjamin Pesetsky’s quite detailed notes, so Clarke’s short introduction to each work in which she played was welcome. Her warm personality added a friendly personal touch, and her selection of information was interesting and helpful.
Although Rameau originally scored his Pièces de clavecin en concerts: Concerto No.5 in D minor (1741) for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord, he also suggested that his set of five Concerts could be performed with flute or a second violin. The choice of flute, viola and harp worked well even though the modern harp tended to dominate the other two voices at times – not that anybody would have objected, as van Leeuwen’s playing was a joy throughout, and Sargeant’s rich viola coupled Clarke’s mellifluous flute complemented the harp effectively. Each of the three short movements of this most engaging work was named in honour of a musician or performer friend, beginning with a four-voice fugue after viol player Forqueray. A rather wistful sarabande with sudden rapid scales for the ballerina Cupis was followed by a lively contrasting movement in tribute to Marais, the celebrated viol-da-gamba player and composer.
Like the Rameau Concert, Jean Françaix’s Quintet for flute, harp and string trio (1934) is relatively unknown. According to Clarke, it is also rarely played – something that must have struck many listeners as unfathomable considering its huge appeal. The four movements are indeed saturated with “French colour”, as she said. Impressionistic roots join neoclassical and modern idioms, beginning with an Andante tranquillo, where the flute has a beguiling melodic line. A perky Scherzo follows and leads to a gently yearning Andante and, finally a quirky, vigorous Rondo – all played with impressive dynamism.
From the chronological extremes of Rameau and Françaix, Debussy became the heart of the program before and after interval. His Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is what Clarke called her “favourite piece in the whole wide world” and one that held special significance for her, being first piece she played with the MSO. It would not, however, been in the arrangement by Steele Johnson played in this concert, with clarinet and double bass joining the others on stage. Johnson is a skilled arranger and the lower strings and harp provided such gorgeous depth of sound that Debussy’s popular orchestral work retained much of the power of the original. From languid sensuality to surging waves of passion the changing colours and moods were portrayed vividly, forward momentum and a sense of rhythmic elasticity strong elements.
After interval, a compelling reading of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893) revealed more of this composer’s quintessentially French musical genius. We are the poorer for this being his only string quartet, but fortunate that it is often performed. It overflows with all manner of effects – so beautifully rendered by these players. The way Faskhi leaned into key phrases in the third movement, Andantino, doucement expressif, was wonderfully true to this descriptive marking. All four played with a shared understanding of the music, whether passing the melody seamlessly between viola and first violin or building and releasing tension. The end of this movement was simply magical and led to a captivating final movement during which some members of the audience could be seen gently swaying, so at one were they in the music.
Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (1905) concluded this assemblage of French Delights, and it proved to be ten minutes of sheer pleasure, especially for harp enthusiasts. Regarded as a little harp concerto, it was commissioned by the Erard instrument company in response to a commission from Debussy by its competitor, Pleyel in 1904. How lucky are we to have Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro because of this “harp war”. Pleyel’s system won the day because it was easier to play, convincingly demonstrated in Ravel’s use of a sweeping arpeggio and the brilliant cadenza that ends the work. And van Leeuwen was just the harpist to highlight its merits with her masterful playing – technical expertise coupled with flowing musicality. Scored for flute, clarinet and string quartet, Ravel created an astonishing array of colours and dramatic musical effects among the melodic bravura. It was the perfect way to conclude this thoughtfully structured program of French Delights.
Heather Leviston reviewed “French Delights” presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank on October 29, 2023.