The evening of dreams began an hour before the concert, with Entre-Temps for oboe and string quartet by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, an admirer of Debussy and a similarly ‘cinematic’ composer, with an ability to play with sound-colours which is alluring for film directors in search of atmospheres. Takemitsu wrote that this short piece was made up of episodes in a dream which ‘moved on through the night towards the twilight’, but I heard – and saw – an anxious group discussion and shades of red: original dreams are transformed in the transmission. All difficulties in performing it were overcome, seemingly effortlessly, by Jennifer Galloway, the BBC Philharmonic’s Principal Oboe, and four of its members who make up the Marchini String Quartet, all of them regulars at the Bridgewater Hall.

Yan Pascal Tortelier, © Malcolm Crowthers
Yan Pascal Tortelier,
© Malcolm Crowthers

Vaughan Williams’ popular evocation of the spirit of the Renaissance, or rather Renaissance England, his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, preceded a main programme devoted to the music of a century ago. There is a burden of anxiety running through this as well, low and insistent. The composer’s fascination with the firm faith and music of Tallis, the great survivor-genius of the Tudor period, has roots in a blend of respect and modern doubt. There is a constant search for answers and resolutions all the way through, but no real return to the serenity of the unforgettable opening chords. Tallis’ theme – the psalm-tune ‘Why fumeth in fight’ is fragmented, and the high points are peaks of restlessness. Conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, the orchestra was superb right through to the closing benediction, a convincing string choir with distinctly contrasting, well-positioned sections and some beautiful fleeting moments, such as the violin-viola duet towards the end.

Debussy’s early work Fantaisie for piano and orchestra has been neglected until recently, possibly because it was believed that he had renounced it and that it is interesting only because it contains foreshadowings of later works. Pianist Kathryn Stott helped to prove that it is much more than a curiosity: her virtuoso playing dominated the proceedings, in spite of the composer’s slightly confused intention that the piano should have a merely orchestral role. She brought out the subtle beauty of the central nocturne and exciting ostinato patterns in the finale – all magnificently.

The central focus was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a composition inspired by the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s work L’après-midi d’un faune, which takes place after what is sometimes coyly described as ‘a recent erotic encounter’ with a group of nymphs. Any flautist dealing with the famous opening solo must have at least a fluttering of stage fright, but on this occasion there were no signs of that, and the following mélange of harmonies and colours (greens and browns for me) created a delicious sense of calm and satisfaction.

Another symbolist – Alexander Scriabin – provided the final work – The Poem of Ecstasy, which was in great contrast to the preceding tranquility, with its newly-created chords, thrilling dissonances and generally massive orchestral sound. However, it linked to the Debussy through its opening flute motif and bold sensuality. Scriabin was perhaps thinking of the voluptuous encounter with the nymphs rather than its aftermath, satyrs rather than fauns. The BBC Philharmonic’s percussion section was seen and heard in all its glory, from frenetic timpani to strident glockenspiel, and the brass had a richly sumptuous quality, especially from the trumpets at the end. The build-up to the climactic moments was finely managed by Tortelier, and the work ended in what Scriabin described as ‘a victory’, which was just the word for it at the Bridgewater Hall.