Vive la France!
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Vive la France!

Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra revels in an evening of Gallic excellence

Vive la France!

In tribute to HRH Princess Chulabhorn Krom Phra Srisavangavadhana on the auspicious occasion of her 66th birthday on July 4, and in collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Ministry of Culture and B.Grimm, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra revelled in total immersion of French musical perfection recently at the Thailand Cultural Centre.

In a scintillating concert titled "Louis Schwizgebel Plays Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No.2", the wondrous young Swiss piano virtuoso gave an exemplary performance of this staple, aided by attentive accompaniment from British conductor Douglas Bostock and well-prepared RBSO musicians. Opening with the rousing Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz, the second half of the concert consisted of Maurice Ravel's exquisite Valses Nobles Et Sentimentales and Georges Bizet's powerfully imposing L'Arlésienne Suite No.2, all in all, a quite marvellous sequencing of intelligent programming.

Berlioz and Ravel have, of course, always been considered of the very highest order as regards to the subtle art of orchestration, but with the juxtaposition here also of the hugely prolific musical polymath Saint-Saëns and Bizet, the epitome of exceptional youthful genius taken from the music world way before his time, one was forcibly reminded of the sheer breadth, quality, variety and deep substance of the French oeuvre as a whole. The aural feast began apace with that super-explosive opening to Roman Carnival Overture as brilliant cor anglais player Kijjarin Pongkapanakrai delivered the main theme with loving care. A pleasingly homogenous viola section tone then shone forth as the group enjoyed a satisfying solo moment with Berlioz passing the theme in their direction, which interestingly in this concert was aside the 1st violin ranks (the 2nd violins were symmetrically opposite on the other side of the podium, with cellos placed next to them) -- an alternative seating plan which Bostock has previously used with the RBSO to pleasing acoustic effect, rebalancing the customary interplay between sections.

Possessed of a deliciously wry humour, Berlioz presents many challenges for the players at various junctures of this piece, amounting to copious finger-twisting passages for the strings and, as it were, "counter-twisting" phrases of unfamiliar structure for everyone -- on a few discreet occasions there were some small discrepancies of ensemble as a result, but nothing to detract from a most exhilarating ride overall.

The phenomenally gifted pianist Louis Schwizgebel was born in 1987 in Geneva. His many achievements include winning the Geneva International Music Competition at the age of 17 and 2nd Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition, and in 2013, he became a BBC New Generation Artist. A French repertoire specialist, his rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto No.2 with the RBSO was simply flawless from beginning to end.

Piano soloist Louis Schwizgebel.

The music itself is irresistibly lovely, utilising all the familiar stylist tropes of the grand Romantic piano concerto idiom as defined by Grieg, Schumann, Chopin and others. Yet there is something undeniably fresh and original in the unfolding of this opus -- the imposing presence of J.S. Bach, looking down from his hallowed organ loft, pervades the entire 1st movement Andante sostenuto, then contrasted to the extreme by the most delicate Allegro scherzando imaginable, leading in its turn to a rumbustious Presto finale which barely leaves time to gather one's breath.

"Bravo!" indeed to Bostock and the RBSO for attending to the neatness of entries and cleanliness of articulation required to allow this music to breathe for itself. For an encore, Schwizgebel then proceeded to dazzle the auditorium -- both musically and technically -- with an utterly masterful reading of L'Isle Joyeuse by yet another titan of French culture, Claude Debussy.

Maurice Ravel's Valses Nobles Et Sentimentales comprise eight adorable waltz-based vignettes which truly feature some of his most sublime, suave inventions. Throughout, the vast array of timbral colour that Bostock coaxed out of the RBSO players was a constant joy to behold, from exotic hushed string-harmonic textures to the whirling, wild abandon of fortissimo glissandi alternating between two harps.

Ravel's model for this miraculous suite was another A-list composer, the Austrian Franz Schubert from a century beforehand, and he absolutely matches the previous master with his own modernist/symbolist sensibilities.

Conductor Douglas Bostock.

A somewhat more straightforward affair, but no less pungent for that, is Georges Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite No.2, revolving thematically around the beauty of The Girl From Arles by playwright Alphonse Daudet. The four movements -- Pastorale; Intermezzo; Minuet; Farandole -- were infused with a wealth of suitably passionate playing from all departments of the RBSO, once again directed with the utmost conviction by Bostock on the podium.

Special mention must be made of flautist Teerat Ketmee, alto-saxophonist Supat Hanpatanachai and harpist Ema Mitarai, whose totally exposed solo passages in the Minuet were played with cool-headed precision and serenity which cast a spellbinding atmosphere in the auditorium.

Meanwhile, uber-taut dotted rhythms in the concluding Farandole propelled a feverish increase in momentum and dynamics towards a double fortissimo tutti denouement -- a quite overwhelming wall-of-sound in the very best sense of the term and a suitably forceful conclusion to such uncompromisingly superior proceedings.

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