Paul Dukas' success rests almost exclusively upon his symphonic scherzo L'apprenti sorcier ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice"). Premièred in 1897, the year of Brahms' death, this orchestral tour-de-force illustrates Goethe's ballad in which a lazy apprentice tries to fulfil his wizard master's requests through his own inadequate magic, which results in rapidly-escalating chaos, only calmed at the end by his master's return. Vladimir Ashkenazy, with his typical energy and vigour, transported the listener from a tautly-articulated beginning – depicting the wizard's initial command and his apprentice's initial successes – to a glossy and slippery sound, as the spell becomes progressively problematic. Furthermore, the humour never suffered from the more deliberately four-sqaure start, always capturing the magical elements of the score.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, © Paul Mitchell
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet,
© Paul Mitchell

In another often jocular work, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was a carefully choreographed soloist. That is not to say there is any affectation, however; each of his gestures complements and mirrors his musical ideas, all of which feeds into a highly-considered whole that betrays a degree of preparation a good deal deeper than the seemingly superficial nature of the work might suggest.

Indeed, it was the detail that stood out in this concerto, as is suggested by Ravel's pared-down scoring. Bavouzet was determined to articulate every note and revealed much within the challenging passagework of the outer movements. (Ravel, in fact, had to be dissuaded from performing the première of this concerto, owing to the disparity between his technique and the demands of his writing.) Trills sounded their rapid alterations meticulously, and many voices were exposed in the dense textures of Ravel's almost cluster-like sonorities.

In the slow movement, Bavouzet invented notably strong and clear colours, rejecting the more hazy readings this mournful waltz is often afforded. His right hand was particularly bold, at times rhythmically liberated from the regularity of the triple-time dance. A little more fantasy could have been injected in his accompaniment of Jill Crowther's sensuous cor anglais playing, so as to sustain interest in the material, although the finale again allowed Bavouzet to toy with the schizophrenic slide from the poetic to the vulgar.

Noches en los jardines de España is ostensibly a story of Spain told with a French accent, through the medium of an unspoken piano concerto, again with Bavouzet in the fore. Whilst Manuel de Falla spent most of his life in his homeland, he passed seven formative years in Paris, where he met Debussy and Ravel, and generally refined his compositional craft. Consequently, the shadings of these Impressionist masters are never far away, with de Falla expressing himself through subtle orchestral colourings instead of more forward gestures and sounds. Set against the more vivid and vivacious sounds of the rest of the programme, it would perhaps have made sense to have this more evocative work before the interval – a more provocative contrast to the Dukas, and a more satisfying final note on which Bavouzet could have left.

Debussy's nautical orchestral triptych La mer concluded the programme. The subject matter was one that obsessed Debussy – "the sea fascinates me more to the point of paralysing my creative faculties" – being, for him, both a symbol of danger and change. The Philharmonia found moments of exquisite beauty, no more so than in the middle scene, "Jeux de vagues" ("The waves at play"), the sound both rich and warm. However, what was lacking was extreme contrast. Never did the musical gestures really surge, and nor did they swell: everything was handled with too much caution and not enough daring for this to have been an entirely commendable performance, for this was a sea without variety and without threat.

***11