What made this concert stand out was the exceptional quality of the playing by the London Symphony Orchestra. I haven’t heard it sound so alert and refined in every department. Therepertoire, celebrating Debussy on the 100th anniversary of his death, certainly played to its strengths and, under the energetic direction of François-Xavier Roth, it turned out to be a most generous and stimulating evening.

François-Xavier Roth © Holger Talinski
François-Xavier Roth
© Holger Talinski

The concert opened with a virtuoso display for the string section, courtesy of Pierre Boulez. His Livre pour cordes, composed between 1968–88, is a work of dense dodecaphony which, despite itself, sounds refined and sensuous almost in the manner of Debussy himself. As a work, it doesn’t travel very far in any direction and, like much of the composer's output, promises more than it delivers. However, the LSO and Roth made as good a case for it as anyone could and its inclusion here in this Debussy-inspired programme, seemed perfectly apt.

Bartók's Violin Concerto no. 2 from 1937–38 that followed is another work notable for its refinement of orchestral sound, marking it as the first of the composer’s later works which move away from the more abrasive style that he developed from the 1920s. The last of his major orchestral works to be composed in Hungary, it retains its folksong-inspired thematic material with a complex variation form approach to structure.

But none of this seemed to signify while listening to this electrifying performance. Renaud Capuçon made light of the fiendishly difficult solo part. His tone throughout was forthright and delicate by turns. His rhythmic drive, which was both controlled and flexible to match the quicksilver changes of mood and tempi inherent in the score, propelled the outer movements into very exciting territories. In the thoughtful central movement, he made the most of the brief sweet moments of romanticism that punctuate it. The orchestra blossomed again and Roth kept the fluid tempi moving with an admirable naturalness.

It was good to have a new work in this concert celebrating the forward-looking Debussy and very pleasing that it was such an impressively colourful work. Frail Skies by Ewan Campbell was a 15-minute exploration of the shifting firmament the composer remembered from his childhood in Kent. Written with a palpable sense of relish for the big orchestral forces, it demonstrated the young composer’s ability not only to create atmosphere and colour, but also an understanding of dramatic impetus. The work built to three wonderful climaxes, progressively more powerful and complex. All this was given luxury attention from the LSO and Roth, making the case for a bright new composer and an exceptional addition to the orchestral repertoire.

Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol was completed in the years after the The Rite of Spring at a time when the composer was beginning to retreat from large scale orchestral works to more intimate and pithy sonorities. This work straddles the two styles, with parts written for a planned opera before The Firebird and the remainder written at the same time as the early sketches of Les noces. As a result, it can seem a bit of a hotchpotch. In this performance every nuance of colour and rhythmic ingenuity was winkled out. From the ceremonial opening section to the final bluesy trumpet solo, beautiful played here, there appeared to be no doubt in the conductor’s mind of the effectiveness of the score.  

The final work was the star turn. Surely La Mer should have all the superlatives heaped upon it. Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece, the greatest piece of French orchestral writing, is perhaps one of the great orchestral scores of all time. Everything about it works brilliantly. The orchestration is second to none, the symphonic structure is truly satisfying and the thematic material inspired. The only thing that can let it down can be performances that try to impose an ‘interpretation’ on the score. Debussy’s detailed score speak for itself and never is there a better case for sticking to the notes.

Roth knows this score inside out and it showed in every note that the LSO so brilliantly played. The opening movement which builds to (another superlative alert) one on the great moments in music, with the bright midday sun bursting through in clear harmonies and resplendent brass writing, was perfectly judged here. The scherzo like central movement, Jeux de vagues, fizzed with watery energy and the finale was shaped ideally, with the climaxes given their full weight and drama. The final rush to the finish has rarely sounded so exhilarating and burnished. If the composer had been in the room, and you almost felt he was, he surely would have approved.

*****