An afternoon concert with a popular programme deserves a full house and that is what greeted the Philharmonia’s leader Zsolt Tihamér-Visontay as he came on to the platform. Thereafter he did not get to do as much leading as usual, since the four French masterpieces to be performed so often favour the woodwinds and horns, as soloists and in various combinations. For this programme, Samuel Coles, the outstanding Principal Flute, made the first musical sound we heard, as he opened, with great poetry and finesse, Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho

Pierre Boulez saw this as the first modern piece, asserting "the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music". But how do you revolutionise late 19th century-orchestral music, with its bloated Strauss and Mahlerian orchestra? One way is to lower the voice, soften the tone, blur the colours – and go back to Schubert’s orchestra, or nearly. Ok, we are in France so we need a couple of harps, plus a pair of antique cymbals.

Illustrating the dreams of a faun on a hot afternoon requires pastel shades, subtle dynamics and a feeling for rhythm in which the bar lines melt away. Debussy’s score provides the instructions to the players, but this work in particular leaves players and conductor much to do if it is to cast its spell. Pablo Heras-Casado had the measure of the Prélude’s ebb and flow, gave his excellent players room to play, and was rewarded with several fine solos. Ideally there might have been more passionate urgency at the climax, when Eros enters in the form of the soaring violins over ecstatic duplets from the woodwinds but, that apart, this was a completely satisfying account of an elusive piece.

In Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, Pierre-Laurent Aimard did not indulge the jazz-inflected parts of the outer movements in the way we hear from many pianists. A pupil of Yvonne Loriod, who also worked in his youth with Messiaen and Boulez, would start perhaps with a fresh analytical view of the score, not with the performing tradition. In the first movement this resulted in a pedestrian opening, but things soon improved. The endless melody of the central Adagio assai cost the composer much labour to get right, but in Aimard’s hands it sounded inevitable, its steady pulse perfectly poised, the great theme exquisitely phrased and imbued with quintessential Ravelian tendresse. There were magnificent solos too from the flute once again and especially Jill Crowther on cor anglais, who apparently never took a breath in the long reprise. In the finale, Aimard’s rock steady tempo and rhythm paid cumulative dividends, growing inexorably to an exciting denouement.

Ravel originally wrote Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose) as a piano duet for children of friends, but surely also as an homage to his own fascination with childhood. When he orchestrated the five-piece suite in 1911, he used a large percussion section and a fairly modest string band, but if that presented Heras-Casado with new balance problems, no-one would have known. In Laideronnette, impératrice des Pagodes, (Little Ugly, Princess of the Pagodas) he gets to deploy all that tuned percussion for a fine episode of French chinoserie, which the Philharmonia players despatched with some relish. The radiant finale evoking Le jardin féerique (The Fairy’s Garden) is marked Lent et grave, and this is sometimes an invitation to adopt a tempo better suited to a Bruckner Adagio. But that Austro-German tradition aims at transcendence and the French tradition aims more at enchantment, and Heras-Casado found an ideal speed to observe the marking and yet to allow this lovely piece to flower into its great climax.

La Mer uses a big orchestra and so finally gave us a really full platform. The work’s subtitle is ‘Three symphonic sketches for orchestra’. Interpreters generally latch either onto the term ‘sketches’ – and so emphasise the impressionism – or ‘symphonic’, so focusing on the structure with its cyclic elements. But these are not mutually exclusive and Heras-Casado did justice to both, so that we were taken on a satisfying symphonic journey, but could enjoy the views painted for us along the way.

The strings get more of a look-in with this piece, of course, and the warm passage for divided cellos in the first movement was especially eloquent. That movement is titled “From dawn to midday on the sea” and the brass greeted the noonday sun with a noble blaze. They did so again at the final climax of the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” which was truly “animated and tumultuous” as marked. This splendid concert will be well worth tuning in for when broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 5th February.