Despite working often in the UK (including with the London Symphony Orchestra), Fabien Gabel enjoys less than the highest profile here. This concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra should help to redress that imbalance, opening as it did with an account of Berlioz’s Le Corsaire (1844) whose unbridled élan was not at the expense of that suave elegance which informs the introduction and at key points thereafter; on the way to an uproarious though never bombastic coda. A scintillating curtain-raiser.
The programme continued with Chopin’s First (second) Piano Concerto (1830). Although neither of the his Concertos has ever been out of the repertoire, it is only in recent decades that these have been widely accepted as valuable if flawed exemplars of the early-Romantic era, rather than dutiful essays in a genre which Chopin abandoned forthwith (the resurgence of interest in such figures as Hummel and John Field having provided much-needed context). Louis Schwizgebel gave a thoughtful and unaffected reading. His tone was a little unyielding in the first movement’s limpid second theme, but this was in accord with emphasising the music’s allegro impetus rather than its maestoso portentousness. There could be no doubting the poised elegance he brought to the ‘Romanze’ ,affecting while never cloying, before summoning a vivacity which saw the Finale home in engaging fashion. It helped that Gabel secured an alert and flexible accompaniment throughout, confirming that Chopin’s often derided orchestration is never less than adequate and often highly effective.
Following the interval, Gabel presided over a commanding account of César Franck’s Symphony (1888). Surprising that the piece should have enjoyed fewer outings in recent decades (this seems only the third from the CBSO in over thirty years) as, whatever the readier appeal of Saint-Saëns’s slightly earlier Third Symphony (“avec orgue”), the Franck is where the French symphonic concept that persisted through most of the next century begins. Brucknerian in spiritual aspiration though this music may be, there was nothing sluggish or heavy-handed about Gabel’s view of the first movement whose sonata-form modifications were rendered with tensile energy. An intriguing amalgam of slow movement and intermezzo, the central Allegretto exuded deftness and animation that in turn accentuated the wistful pathos of its closing pages. As to the Finale – in which constant and intensive recycling of earlier themes can feel too contrived – this responded equally well to Gabel’s purposeful approach, building swiftly yet methodically to what a triumphal yet never overbearing apotheosis.
An impressive and idiomatic reading, then, and how fitting that this concert should have been dedicated to Louis Frémaux (1921-2017) – who, as principal conductor of the CBSO during most of the 1970s, led all three of these pieces. A pity that internal politics not only hastened his departure but also served to make future collaborations impossible: fortunately, he left a distinguished recorded legacy with the CBSO that has recently been re-released complete on Warner Classics, and of whose imminence Frémaux was aware.