Kurt Masur made a tumultuous exit from the New York Philharmonic in 2002 after some well-publicized friction with the Philharmonic's board. Anyone who thought that would signal his withdrawal from the music scene was mistaken: The 77-year-old German maestro now directs both the Orchestre National de France and the London Philharmonic, has a slew of guest conducting engagements (he conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in April), and generally seems busier than ever. On Sunday, Masur and the French orchestra made their first visit to Boston, showing off an artistic partnership that shows every sign of working beautifully.
Their program opened with French music for piano and orchestra, with the French-born Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. His playing, while full of dexterity and imagination, is also straightforward and unfussy. This served him well in the afternoon's second work, Ravel's sparkling G-major Concerto, where excessive tinkering can doom a performance. You could hear a wealth of color and detail in Thibaudet's playing, and he caught the jazzy overtones of the outer movements perfectly. His solo in the beginning of the slow movement was simple and understated, giving it an emotional depth that sometimes fails to appear in a piece often regarded as light and carefree. Masur's accompaniment was solid but lumbered occasionally, and he couldn't quite match his soloist's dash and finesse.
The first work on the bill was Debussy's Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, a relatively early work that shows the composer still groping for his distinctive mature voice. Thibaudet's playing was again fine, but the balance was skewed toward the orchestra, and in several passages the interplay between the two camps was almost impossible to pick up.
Rimsky-Korsakov's beloved symphonic poem ''Sheherazade" occupied the second half of the program. Masur led a muscular performance that bristled with vitality, making this repertory staple sound fresh. He was helped in large part by the Orchestre National's wind soloists, all of whom played outstandingly. Four extensive violin solos represent Sheherazade's voice and link the movements together, and concertmaster Sarah Nemtanu dispatched them with great character.
When the orchestra came together for the piece's big moments -- such as the opening movement, depicting Sinbad's ship on the waves, or the close, where the ship breaks apart on the rocks -- it produced a sound of tremendous power that remained warm and rounded. The conductor was a strong but never overbearing presence, and the orchestra gave everything he asked of it.
The ovation gave conductor and orchestra a chance to salute each other and to offer the same composer's ''Flight of the Bumblebee" as an encore. Well-worn it may be, but the care they lavished on it made it both fun and artistically rewarding. In that, it captured the entire afternoon in microcosm.