Thierry Fischer presided over the London Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-French programme that explored the impact other composers variously had on Bizet, Ravel and Saint-Saëns. Homage was paid to Gounod in Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C, Gershwin (amongst others) in Ravel’s mature Piano Concerto in G major and Liszt in Saint-Säens Symphony no. 3 in C minor. This thematic idea neatly linked novice and veteran composers that included one of the most popular French symphonies in the repertoire.

Benjamin Grosvenor ©
Benjamin Grosvenor
Making his debut with the London Philharmonic players was Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer who gave an invigorating account of Bizet’s symphony (written in 1855 when he was just 17) and confirmed that it is no mere trifle even if it does belong to a fledgling composer. (Perhaps this conductor should also consider other French symphonists such as D’Indy, Magnard and Roussel.) His enthusiasm for this student work was readily apparent in the opening movement’s benign direction played here without repeats. Fischer’s invigorating gestures, however, did not always draw a corresponding response from his players who were working hard with unfamiliar repertoire. Well balanced woodwind and horns initiated the Adagio movement and led to an agreeable contribution from oboe and pizzicato strings, while violas and cellos provided a suitably rustic drone in the Scherzo’s central trio. It was the finale that left the deepest impression with its zesty, scampering violin writing (admirably executed by the dozen first violinists) which could have provided the soundtrack to any of those silent movies with Buster Keaton in the 1920s. Astonishingly, it was not until the next decade when this symphony received its first performance.

There followed the Ravel piano concerto – often regarded as a work of detached and cool sophistication – and played by a technically flawless Benjamin Grosvenor. After an insecure start from the orchestra, Grosvenor dispatched the challenges of the opening Allegramente with consummate ease, finding dark hues from the Steinway’s lowest register and just enough sparkle above. In the work’s still centre he played with total composure, yet the sense of intimacy that the movement demands flickered only fitfully. His partnership with Sue Böhling’s elegant cor anglais solo was a lesson in listening. In the toccata-like finale, piccolo, clarinet and trombone each contributed notably to its jazzy character with Fischer pushing the momentum forward to an exuberant finish.

After the interval an enlarged orchestra (now with 60 string players) gave us Saint-Säens’ “Organ” Symphony. So used are we to reading emotionally charged phrases such as “the organ is used to earth-shattering effect” (RFH's brochure) and hearing recordings with an amplified organ part that we may be surprised to realise that the symphony was written for a performance in St James’s Hall, which housed only a modest organ. Intriguingly, the composer allowed the use of a harmonium where an organ wasn’t available. Although Fischer had the Festival Hall’s restored Harrison & Harrison at his disposal his account reflected Saint-Säens’ modest use of the instrument more for its atmospheric colour than its dramatic possibilities. Both of these qualities appeared in the main Adagio where organist James Sherlock formed a superb collaboration with a glowing string section, adding warmth to well-shaped dynamics.

In the opening Allegro Fischer managed to draw from the players some stirring climaxes, and while the strings were mostly secure in their precipitous semi-quavers the movement as a whole never quite cohered. Excitement returned in the scherzo where woodwind and brass were particularly neat and tidy in their incisive fanfare figures, and four hands at the piano added bling in the closing Maestoso. Although at its start the organ chords felt slightly underpowered, by the end the full audience roared its approval. Earth shattering? Not quite.