With full symphony orchestras forced into playing as smaller chamber orchestras for the time being, a good deal of key orchestral repertoire is currently out of their reach – none of the bigger Romantic symphonies, no choral extravaganzas. But while certain chamber-orchestra masterpieces are reappearing with the proverbial bunching of London buses (Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Verklärte Nacht, I’m looking at you), some fascinating concert programmes are being ushered into existence that bear witness to ingenuity and imaginative planning, and which see opportunity rather than restriction in reduced performer numbers. The fifth instalment in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s ambitious twelve-concert autumn season was a case in point. For instance, in normal conditions, how often do we get to hear Saint-Saëns’s Second Symphony when the “Organ Symphony” is usually the go-to work? But this early piece has attractions of its own, and formed a fitting finale to an all-French programme conducted by Thierry Fischer.

Thierry Fischer
© Marco Borggreve

There was a neat line of teacher-pupil relationships between the three composers represented. In biblical terms, one might say that Saint-Saëns begat Fauré who begat Ravel. The concert opened with Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques, a performance that despite the perkiness of its opening theme took a while to get into its stride. The strings sounded a little uneasy at first, possibly a combination of sitting so far apart from each other and microphone placement as heard on the livestream, with the effect that one tended to hear them as individual players rather than well-blended sections. This was less obvious later on, so may simply have been a question of acclimatisation to the seating arrangement.

It certainly was not an issue in the fine performance of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye that sat at the centre of the programme, not least because the composer’s string writing often plays around with solo and ensemble effects. And how welcome it was to hear the full ballet score, rather than the five-movement suite. In many respects the music that Ravel added to flesh out his original piano duet is as, if not more, compelling than the pre-existing music: the evocative opening with its horn calls and birdsong, the additional tableau of the Spinning Wheel Dance and the harp-led introduction to the imagined pagodas of the penultimate scene – Eluned Pierce the consummate soloist here. Indeed, solo playing was nicely turned throughout, and reminded us what a master of sonority Ravel was, even when faced with a small orchestra of double wind, two horns, percussion, harp and strings.

The scoring for the Saint-Saëns merely adds two trumpets and eschews the harp and celesta, so eminently practical for the forces spread across the Lighthouse stage. The 23-year-old composer had yet to find his true voice, perhaps, but there’s an almost Schubertian freshness to much of the music that Fischer and his musicians exploited to the full. Although the material is basic, elemental even, in its reliance on straightforward scales and arpeggios, nothing outstays its welcome and the symphony’s youthful exuberance, from opening fugue to syncopated minuet trio to closing tarantella, was conveyed with a sense of both delight and rhythmic crispness.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO's video stream