By Lawrence Budmen

French music played by Gallic musicians was the bill of fare on Monday night at the Broward Center when the Concert Association presented the Orchestre National de France in a program of works by Cesar Franck and Maurice Ravel with matinee idol Jean-Yves Thibaudet as piano soloist. The only musical element that was not French was the formidable German conductor Kurt Masur.

When the Orchestre National last visited South Florida in the 1990's it suffered from less than precise ensemble playing and some weaknesses in crucial first chair positions. Today this group is a world class orchestra that has prospered under the demanding leadership of Masur. The ensemble's light, transparent string tone is quintessentially French while the bright Gallic winds play with finely chiseled elegance. 

Franck's Symphony in D Minor was once part of the standard symphonic repertoire. Today it is rarely played which made the orchestra's stellar performance all the more welcome. Franck was an organist and Masur drew impressive organ like sonorities from the French ensemble. The English horn soloist in the Allegretto played with voluptuous tone. Masur led his forces in an impassioned and moving interpretation of this symphonic masterpiece. The concluding brass peroration had almost Wagnerian velocity.

In highly charged romantic music by Rachmaninoff or Liszt Thibaudet can be a less than satisfying keyboard artist. His cerebral approach can seem at odds with the fire and drama of the music. However, he is a near perfect exponent of French scores. Thibaudet's coolly understated interpretation of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major allowed musical details to emerge that are obscured in more overtly brilliant performances. His rhapsodic, subtly nuanced pianism in the Adagio was beautifully accompanied by Masur's surging strings. Thibaudet and Masur found the bluesy, quasi Gershwin wit and snap in the final Presto. 

Ravel's La Valse is a cunning deconstruction of the Vienesse waltz. Masur understood those little retards and hesitations that give the Vienesse waltz its distinctive character. He gave full rein to the music's rapturous film noir decadence. Indeed Masur's Ravel had the frothy lightness of a fine French soufflé.

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