The Philharmonia Orchestra’s new Human/Nature season tries to divine our relationship with climate and ecology through music. Birdsong was piped into the foyer of the Southbank Centre as we filed in. A programme of French music showed us water, moths, birds, nymphs, and much besides, organised around pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with Thomas Søndergård conducting, stepping in for an unwell Pablo Heras-Casado. The first half was taken up with Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs, but with an added twist.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Julia Wesely

Aimard played the first, second and concluding movements, but the Philharmonia performed the third and fourth in Ravel’s own orchestrations. The contrasts were striking, showcasing two different aspects of Ravel’s ingenious textural imagination: the luminous decay of his piano writing, whose flecks of colour and light gather and disperse, and the sustained shimmer of his orchestral timbres, whose layers accrete and swell to fill the room. It was like seeing the same work through different ends of a telescope.

The orchestra's bigger canvas makes for bigger gestures, which were plentiful. The ocean of strings and winds rippled in Une Barque sur l’océan. Special mention should go to bassoonist Emily Hultmark for a soulful solo in Alborado del gracioso, Ravel’s clownish interlude; rich and oaky, melancholically buffoonish, tinged with a sad dignity. The rest of it was precision engineered, thanks to a percussion section manically together, which kept a tight rein on its irrepressible energies.

Moths are drawn to light much like Ravel’s contemporaries in painting were at the time and in Noctuelles, Aimard seemed to grasp this. Most remarkable was his gracefulness of touch, summoning wings from the piano that fluttered with remarkable energy, but felt paper-thin. (This is a movement where less skilled pianists clatter about at the excitement of it all, and end up scorching the music.) The same delicacy of attack was on shown in the La Vallée des cloches, whose shapely peals had a shrouded, muffled quality, as if heard at great distance. He’s a pianist who asks his audience to listen intently to the magical inner reverberations of the instrument; you could feel every overtone bloom in the opening single notes of the Oiseaux tristes

Aimard returned for Messiaen’s Réveil des oiseaux, a short work for piano and orchestra (sans brass, but with trumpets), with a characteristically adventurous battery of percussion and plenty of spotlight moments for solo woodwinds and strings. The piece describes birdsong from dawn until midday (think the first movement of La Mer, but with feathers). In this piece, Messaien feels like he is yet to integrate his birdsong into the wider mystical schemes of his larger, later works that draw on the same materials. It feels governed by its ornithological interests above all else.

But there were standout musical moments. The playing was harder, more raw and more raucous than in Ravel, a reminder of birdsong’s abrasive beauties, captured in explosive outbursts from piccolo, violin, or clarinet. This reached its zenith in climaxes that saw two dozen songs come together. Aimard’s playing was bright and skittering, full of unexpected whoops and pivots, and sudden changes of density. It’s this kind of crafted spontaneity that has made him such an engaging performer of 20th-century repertoire. 

Another dawn to close – and one of the most remarkable in music, no less. Ravel’s second suite from Daphnis et Chloé is an orchestral phantasmagoria and, in an ideal performance, feels both ravishing and weightless. Søndergård gave us a radiant dawn, lush and full-blooded, though louder at the opening than in more searching accounts. The Pantomime of Pan and Syrinx, where the two lovers fall for each other anew, was in the hands of principal flute Samuel Coles, who spun out a heady line full of smoky low notes, sitting on the silkiest cushion of strings. With the piano out the way, orchestral virtuosity took centre stage in the fearsome Danse générale, with hair-rising triplets from the trumpets and scurrying woodwinds. Søndergård kept the lid on the excitement long enough to make the final bars count. Truly a piece that ends with a flash and a bang.