Given the opportunity for a night on the town with a French composer, who would choose Debussy’s contemporary Albéric Magnard? The omens, superficially, aren’t good: a composer, some authorities tell us, of austere musical countenance, indifferent to charm. But that wasn’t the picture presented by the scintillating performance of his Quintet for piano and winds, crowning a concert by the Orsino Ensemble and the pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet that cruised with adorable flair from one mostly 20th-century French delight to another.Admittedly Magnard’s finale rambled too much and too long, taking the edge off total joy. But that still gave us a good 20 minutes of fast-moving harmonies, smoothly wriggling through different keys while the wind instruments cut through the chromatic hothouse with searing and quirky lyrical lines. Nicholas Daniel’s oboe, Matthew Hunt’s clarinet, Adam Walker’s flute, Amy Harman’s bassoon: all had their time in the sun, colouring and shaping their individual sounds with a perfect mix of boldness and finesse. Bavouzet, too, was a tower of strength, driving through what look on the page like churning fistfuls of notes with his trademark florid finesse.

Magnard’s colossus was cunningly reached by degrees, with the number of musicians required rising steadily as the concert progressed. Walker’s silver-tongued flute was first to arrive with Debussy’s solo, Syrinx, atmospherically wafting down from the heavens, or at least the Wigmore balcony. Then there were two, Bavouzet’s piano and Hunt’s gorgeous clarinet, offering up Debussy’s Première rhapsodie; followed by Bavouzet and Walker’s flute, dancing through a light-fingered sonatine by the obscure Pierre Sancan.

Appetites whetted for more, Amy Harman’s limpidly comical bassoon joined oboe and piano in the garrulous and touching jumble of Poulenc’s Trio: a miniature masterpiece from a composer who’d certainly be an entertaining night-time companion. Daniel and Harman’s acrobatics were delightful, but Bavouzet added extra sparkle with his crisp attack. Here and elsewhere he even found time to prompt the page-turner with an elegant curve of a spare finger. Only a French pianist would do this.

What to do for the encore? A repeat of Magnard’s scherzo had to suffice, though I can’t have been alone in remembering the words of the Orsino Ensemble’s patron saint, Duke Orsino, in Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on.” And on and on.

Geoff Brown, The Times, 16 November 2022

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