Adventurous programming – or “curation” to employ the overused term from this concert’s publicity – is welcome, particularly if it refreshes fusty routine. Instead of the usual conductor entrance to polite applause, the Royal Festival Hall was suddenly plunged into darkness last night, from which a spotlight picked out Pierre-Laurent Aimard, buried in the depths of the Philharmonia's ranks, to perform Pierre Boulez's Notations IV for solo piano. When blue lighting then flooded the stage, Esa-Pekka Salonen  was already in place to continue without pause.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda

The entire first half juxtaposed Boulez and Debussy in a continuous flow of music, enhancing the contrasts between the two composers. Bathed in a golden halo of dawn, the smudgy haze of Debussy's Gigues emerged from the glaring sunburst of the orchestral Notations IV. It was akin to pairing Monet with Jackson Pollock.

Aimard’s contributions were exquisitely brief, each of the three piano Notations complying to Boulez’s pre-determined 12 bars in length. No. VII, nestled in the middle of the first half sequence, was tenderly caressed before giving way to the nocturnal rumblings of its orchestral counterpart, beneath shimmering cool blue moonbeams in Colin Grenfell’s restless lighting designs.

By featuring only two of Debussy’s ImagesGigues and Rondes de printemps – we were denied the most boisterous of the triptych, Ibéria, with its fiesta of Spanish colour. Gigues, with its hints of the Northumbrian folksong The Keel Row, was shrouded in mists. Debussy wasn’t terribly well served in the second half either, the ubiquitous La Mer preceded by a rarity, the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, providing Aimard much more air time. It’s a curious work, far from what we might think of as typical Debussy, composed in 1889-90, shortly after his two year stay in Rome. There’s something of César Franck in the Fantaisie, the piano not conforming to the adversarial role of a concerto. Its languorous middle movement nudged us towards the world of Debussy’s Faune, perhaps, but the sudden romantic outbursts aren’t characteristic of the composer at all. Aimard, glued to the score throughout, brought a delicate light touch to the work, although the upper registers of the piano sounded dangerously brittle.

Boulez was a very fine Debussy conductor and Salonen's Debussy is very much in Le Maître's mould, full of pinpoint detail and lucid articulation. Visually, Salonen’s conducting of the two composers was very different: jagged, angular stabs for Boulez; a much more fluid beat, stemming from the shoulders, for Debussy. I’m not sure Boulez would have employed such dramatic ritardandos in La Mer though. Salonen pulled the tempi in all sorts of directions here, which certainly made for a dramatic “Dialogue between the wind and the sea” where salty waves spattered their spume in lively fashion, mostly via Keith Bragg’s fierce piccolo. Greenfell’s lighting built to a full midday glare, matching the Philharmonia for brightness. The first movement had been full of anti-Impressionist fine detail, the lovely passage for cellos rightly drawing a beatific smile from the conductor. “Play of Waves” had the clockwork precision of a tinkling music box, very contained, intimately sharing the sea’s secrets.