Bertrand de Billy’s debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra offered one of the more enticing programmes in this year’s season. Perhaps better known for his work in opera – he has guest-conducted several times at the Royal Opera House in recent years – de Billy here conducted a selection from Poulenc and Fauré and brought to the concert the sense of drama of the opera house, together with key understanding of the balance between voice and orchestra.

Bertrand de Billy
© Marco Borggreve

A posthumous work first: in 1959 Leonard Bernstein commissioned from Poulenc the Sept Repons des Tenebres for the New York Philharmonic, but the piece only premiered three months after the latter’s death, in 1963. It’s an odd work, disconcerting in some respects: Poulenc’s writing shifts repeatedly, changes in texture and pace, making it tricky to get a definitive grip on the work. Moments of almost morbid stillness contrast with lush, rich harmony. The piece was conducted by de Billy with deft balance, sustaining equilibrium between the LPO Choir, orchestra and the soloist, Katerina Tretyakova in such a way as to bring total clarity to the more substantial moments of the piece. Tretyakova was a luxury soloist for the piece, singing with total assurance and pointed diction. Projection was excellent and one sensed a commitment to the text that gave her singing added weight. The choir gave a nuanced, vibrant performance, though there were one or two moments in the early responsories where there seemed to be slight synchronisation issues.

It’s always a joy to hear the Festival Hall’s organ put to good use: the choir emptied to leave James O'Donnell alone for Poulenc’s Concerto for organ, timpani and strings. The opening blast, a striking blow, set the tone for O’Donnell’s performance, a virtuosic account of the piece of theatrical dynamism. The broad heft of the organ contrasted with de Billy’s strings, fizzing and snapping underneath. Balance for me was spot on; the organ reined in enough at key moments to avoid a total overpowering of the orchestra that allowed the contrasts to cut through. Tempi were just about right, spacious enough to allow the magnitude of the work to show without falling into ponderous dirge.

The Fauré Requiem was the popular favourite of the programme and Tretyakova returned, to be joined by Stéphane Degout. Degout has a particular way of singing, an almost poetic focus on text, that brings a special quality to a performance. His cool, elegant baritone was an excellent companion to Tretyakova’s warmer instrument – an ideal pairing. In style, de Billy seemed to take an approach less focused on grand solemnity and more on intimacy. The substantial forces of the orchestra were carefully moderated; at times the playing was almost gentle. It was beauty over scale, a devotion of a different kind where one sense total communication between orchestra and singers. It will not have been to everyone’s tastes – there were moments where a little more force would have been welcome – but it was a complex and thought-out reading of the piece that, to me, worked.