This concert was marketed as “Essential Debussy”, but three of the four pieces are from the 1890s and Debussy is generally regarded as writing his essential works mainly in the early 20th century. Also apart from the opening piece, the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, we heard three items that don’t appear that often on programmes, though for different reasons. “Elusive Debussy” would have been a more accurate description, if hardly one likely to start a run on the box office. There was a pretty full house in fact, so the marketing folk at the LSO know what they’re doing.

François-Xavier Roth © Marco Borggreve
François-Xavier Roth
© Marco Borggreve

So too does François-Xavier Roth, especially in this repertoire. The Prélude is practically his calling card, and there is no aspect of its subtle shape-shifting form or its sensuous but cool emotional world of which he is not the master. From the fluid opening solo from Principal Flute Gareth Davies through to the score’s exquisitely languorous leave-taking, this was as beguiling a performance as one could wish to hear. There was no sense of routine, even though this was by far the most familiar item on the programme.

But next was a rare sighting of one of Debussy's least performed works, the early Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. It is an attractive piece, without ever sounding entirely like Debussy. If you played it to your friends as a quiz item, and chose the least Debussian moments, Saint-Saëns or Franck would be creditable guesses. Cédric Tiberghien can’t have played it that often, but dispatched the very busy solo part with some dexterity, and in the Lento, great charm. The composer disliked the virtuoso display element of the 19th-century concerto, so the soloist often seems primus inter pares rather than the protagonist. No wonder Tiberghien offered an encore, Minstrels from Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes. In its brief span he was able to demonstrate his feeling for his compatriot’s music more than in the 25 minutes of the Fantaisie.

Jeux (1912) was a ballet score for Diaghilev, and the last orchestral work Debussy finished. Yet for all its high standing as a modernist masterpiece, it is another comparative rarity in the concert hall. It’s not exactly omnipresent with dance companies either, but then how do you dance to a twenty minute score with about sixty different tempo markings? But never can such a silly scenario – a boy and two girls chase a tennis ball and then each other – have provoked such superbly inventive music. The restless passing of tiny melodic fragments from section to section, forming a mosaic so elaborate that the pattern is hard to discern, must require time and dedication to prepare and great alertness to play. Yet Roth led the LSO in a performance not only of precision, but also of passion. It sounded as if they had had a week of rehearsal or played it many times before, which can hardly be the case. However it happened, the alchemy between the orchestra and its new Principal Guest Conductor worked and gave us the really essential Debussy.

Debussy hated being called an Impressionist, but Nuages (Clouds), the first of his Nocturnes, really does invite comparisons with 19th-century French painters’ concern with the subtle effects of light and shade. Its sober orchestral colouring and sense of drifting formlessness is eerily evoked by the woodwind writing, which the LSO players shaded expertly. Fêtes (Festivals) instantly banished the grey moodiness with a swift and sprightly string rhythm – we joined the revellers when they were already partying hard. The middle section procession that passes through the festive scene was splendidly stage-managed by Roth, from the distant-sounding trumpets through to the raucous abandon of the climax. Oh, but the entire London Symphony Orchestra en fête is a dazzling aural spectacle – how on earth did we all remain in our seats when summoned by such Bacchic frenzy?

More temptation followed in Sirènes, as the sixty Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, many of whom had been seated on the platform benches since 19:25, rose at 21:20 to impersonate the sirens luring Odysseus on to the rocks. Their wordless singing was clearly well prepared by Chorus Director Simon Halsey, accurate in intonation and internal balance. But it was not particularly sensuous, which is in part Debussy’s fault – the female chorus is used nearly throughout, making this most colourful of orchestrators sound unusually monochrome. The Barbican acoustic did the rest. With little bloom on the sound, the ululations of this large group were rather close-up, not at all distant, exotic or alluring. Paradoxically, they would have generated more erotic charge in a Cathedral acoustic. However long they had been at sea, I doubt Homer’s mariners would have changed course for these sirens.