Oxford may well be far from the coast, but it played host to a bracing French voyage last night at the Sheldonian Theatre. Cramped in the decks beneath Sir Christopher Wren's eight-sided cupola, we journeyed down the Nile with Camille Saint-Saëns, called into Greece to catch up with Debussy's Faune before contemplating La Mer. Captain of the SS Oxford Philharmonic was American conductor Karina Canellakis, navigating occasionally rough seas, with Cédric Tiberghien as her boatswain in a gorgeous rendition of the “Egyptian” Piano Concerto.

Karina Canellakis © Todd Rosenberg
Karina Canellakis
© Todd Rosenberg

There was a good deal of animosity shared between the evening's two composers. “I have a horror of sentimentality and cannot forget that its name is Saint-Saëns,” Debussy once stated, but even he might have appreciated the gamelan effects in the second movement of the Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major, hinting at a Javanese destination even farther afield than Egypt. Saint-Saëns composed most of his Fifth Piano Concerto in Luxor on one of his frequent winter trips and the Egyptian influence is most strongly heard in the seductive G major section based on a Nubian melody which the composer heard being sung by Nile boatmen while he sailed down the river in a dahabieh.

Tiberghien's precise, filigree fingerwork turned this into a delectable journey. He often leant almost into the keyboard, caressing the notes with the gentlest of touches. Despite a sour opening woodwind chord and violin tone that verged on the anaemic, the first movement Allegro animato was a genial affair, while crickets chirruped and frogs croaked in the twilight in the second. Tiberghien unleashed plenty of gallic glitter in the finale. Here, the piano's bass rumblings suggest the deck-shaking vibrations of ships' propellers. The sea voyage of Saint-Saëns' imagination drew us back to the French boulevards, full of gaiety and swagger. Canellakis guided with a firm hand on the tiller, minimal gestures but a clear beat setting a clear course. Saint-Saëns ceded to Debussy for Tiberghien's encore, La Puerta del Vino, his velvety habanera in the left hand contrasting with percussive right hand castanet snaps, to add sultry Spain to the evening's itinerary.

Saint-Saëns dismissed Debussy's groundbreaking Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune as “no more a piece of music than the palette on which a painter has been working on a picture”. The 'impressionist' tag this evocative tone poem has earned belies the intricate detail required to give the score its gauzy shimmer. Sadly, a wobbly French horn and the sound of student capers outside dampened the ardour of Tony Robb's admirably phrased flute solo, and the lack of sheen in the Oxford Phil's violins dulled the Faune's sensuality, especially given the slow tempo.

The opening to La Mer suffered from a lack of unanimity among the violins, but the first movement led to a vibrant sunrise, while Jeux de vagues featured a fine cor anglais solo. Canellakis did a good impression of a swan, serene and unruffled on the surface, but working very hard to keep the performance together, firmly correcting a wrong percussion entry, and conjuring up an exciting, squally storm in the Dialogue du vent et de la mer, Canellakis restoring the trumpets flourishes in bars 237-44 (as did Ernest Ansermet, so she is in good company). Despite a few choppy waters, this was a tightly rehearsed, no nonsense performance concluding a pleasant voyage.