Two days before the UK exited the EU, the Orchestre National de Lille (ONL) performed a programme of European music at London’s Cadogan Hall. They were joined by Chinese-American prize-winning pianist Eric Lu for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the piece with which Lu secured his first prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018.
The foyer and concert hall reverberated with bi-lingual conversations; unsurprisingly, there were many French people in the audience. In 2020, the ONL is the only French symphony orchestra touring the UK, and its presence here is part of a wider cultural and economic delegation to foster ongoing links with the UK and the Hauts-de-France region, and to further strengthen Anglo-French relations post-Brexit.
The charismatic Alexandre Bloch conducted without the score for the works by Ravel and Debussy, perhaps a sign of how intuitive this music is for him. Opening with Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, a perennial favourite and a gentle opener for this colourful programme, Bloch drew characterful watercolour washes of sound and textures from the orchestra, whose silky transparent strings, haunting woodwind and sparkling percussion elevated these children’s pieces to something far more subtle and sophisticated.
Debussy’s La mer was illustrated in more vivid strokes and colour in an evocative and dramatic portrayal of the mercurial, capricious nature of the sea, from gently lapping waves on a summertime beach to a swelling, storm-tossed ocean. It’s a cliché to say that French musicians truly understand French music, but here one felt a profound appreciation by orchestra and conductor of Debussy’s kaleidoscopic, atmospheric soundworld – those shimmering agitated strings, bright brass and luminous woodwind which brought the music to life in myriad detail and brooding intensity, culminating in a thrilling climax.
Unusually, the concerto opened the second half. This was perhaps for practical reasons, given the amount of rearranging of the stage which was required. Beethoven began sketching his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1804, and unlike many other pieces from his middle period which have become associated with heroic struggle and his personal demons, this work is imbued with serenity and joy, though not without poignancy: this was the last of the composer’s five concertos which he was able to perform himself, due to his increasingly debilitating deafness.
I have been wanting to hear Eric Lu live since enjoying his Leeds competition performance, and I missed his Wigmore Hall solo debut last December due to illness. There are two things which immediately strike you about this young (he’s only just 22) pianist: his modest stage presence and elegant, poetic sound, most obviously demonstrated in his pianissimo touch and Mozartian clarity, especially in the upper register of the piano. There was an intimacy too, in his interactions with the orchestra, and when not playing he turned towards them and conductor, awaiting his next cue.
His quiet presence brought a very palpable tranquility to the second movement, the piano’s tender, hymn-like entries contrasting with the bold, pestering strings. In the finale there was a quiet strength and bravura from Lu in gleaming passages and crisply articulated rhythms, the orchestra matching him with energy and élan.
Unfortunately, I had to leave after the Beethoven, and only heard Lu’s encore (Chopin’s Prelude in B-flat) via the live link the foyer, before dashing for my train. I also missed the final piece in the programme, Ravel’s La Valse, which I don’t doubt was played with the requisite passion and sensuality by the ONL.
Photos ©Ugo Ponte/ONL