The CPO presented an all-French program as part of its continuing Showcase series. The showcase element in this concert concerned two Canadian keyboard players: pianist Marc-André Hamelin and organist Neil Cockburn. Performing music by Ravel and Saint-Saens, they and the orchestra offered listeners a glimpse into the world of French music, both in its refined and boisterous elements.
The refined part came first, which included a lethargic account of the orchestral version of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Here was a goose that had definitely lost its gander, the music emerging as dull and mostly lacking interest, and with rather indifferent playing from the woodwinds. Without some internal spark, poise and charm can quickly turn into a musical yawn, as was the case here, with conductor Rune Bergmann seemingly asleep at the helm.
Marc-André Hamelin can certainly play the Ravel Concert in G major, but despite his evident technical accomplishments, this was a rather controlled account of the music, even in the famous slow movement. The finale came off the best, with some dazzling licks from the Hamelin and a good degree of energy. But the orchestral support throughout was below what was needed, both in the ensemble and in the sectional playing, which included some obvious lapses.
The soloist and orchestra didn’t really gel as a performing unit, and while nothing was particularly terrible, neither was the performance notable for its élan or dynamism. This was especially the case with the opening movement, which lacked a common musical purpose, the orchestra and the soloist occupying different musical rooms.
Back on solid romantic ground, the orchestra fared rather better with the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, a piece it knows reasonably well. The finale is, of course, a never-fail exercise that can rouse any audience, as it did here. The not-so-hard organ part was dispatched with his customary top-notch playing by Neil Cockburn, who made the magnificent Carthy organ hum or blast as needed.
Elsewhere, there was some solid, even impressive playing from the strings. Genial on the podium, Bergmann was less the director of the music on this occasion and more of a traffic cop, his own view of the music not much in evidence. But, as previously mentioned, the Saint-Saens is, essentially a never-fail piece, and with its attractive melodies and many exciting moments, it made its mark.
The entire concert seemed under-prepared, the customary polish in the playing often dull and merely professional. French music needs lucid textures, a precise balance between melody and accompaniment, and always a bit of brio. Only occasional flashes of these things were evident on this occasion.
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