It is tempting to think that Debussy wrote La Mer on some Channel beach gazing into the middle distance for inspiration. Wrong. In fact, most of the aquatic action was dreamed up in Paris. It is also appealing to suppose that Ibéria was composed on location. Quite the contrary. As Debussy himself said, “I have an endless store of memories, and to my mind they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” It is equally conceivable that the last piano concerto which Saint-Saëns wrote, graced with the name “Egyptian”, owes its inventiveness to impressions derived from the banks of the Nile. Yet, though he spent some time in Cairo and Luxor, this particular moniker is misleading. Saint-Saëns regularly escaped from the winter fogs of Paris to the French countryside where for this F major concerto the composer drew on recollections of his many visits to countries in the East.

Stephen Hough
© Jiyang Chen

Edward Gardner, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was the musical tour operator on this occasion. It is always risky launching a concert with Ibéria, before a band of players has fully warmed up, since in addition to the sensuousness which underlies the second movement “Perfumes of the night” the collective orchestral limbs need to stretch seductively and skip capriciously elsewhere. If the beat is too metronomic and the sound favours precision over atmosphere, the overall effect is dangerously starved of real Spanish colour.

It is good that Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto is receiving increased outings, if only to remind us what an accomplished tunesmith he was. All the works in this concert were written within little more than a decade of each other, yet even on the cusp of a new century the Grand Old Man of French music never betrayed his unique blend of classical proportions and romantic spirit. The elegance and refinement of the three movements, like pieces of exquisite Sèvres porcelain, were on display in this wonderfully sympathetic performance by Stephen Hough. In short, he allowed the music to speak for itself, from the dreamy opening with ripples of notes moving with an admirable lightness of touch to the more forceful bravura elements in the finale. Gardner was a well-matched accompanist here, creating with the LPO a magic carpet of sound that transported the listener into more exotic territory in the central Andante, where there were hints of Eastern promise from the oboe and gamelan-like sounds from the soloist set against whispering upper strings and a gentle rumble from the timpani. It was entirely fitting that after such ravishing pianism and tonal fastidiousness the encore should have been Debussy’s Clair de lune.

In a programme devoted exclusively to works by French composers it would have been strange not to have had a piece by Ravel. Here it was his Mother Goose Suite. This is one of those rare instances where the original five-movement piano duet was later expanded to form eleven movements of a complete ballet. Unlike the physical travel implied elsewhere this piece by Ravel is a journey into the inner world of the imagination, recreating a nursery childhood through references to fairy tales. There were many characterful moments in the early movements in which the LPO woodwind were on sparkling form, offset by velvety string textures that caressed the air. However, in “Beauty and the Beast” the make-believe nature didn’t quite register at Gardner’s brisk speed and the clarinet solo was slightly hurried along. With much lower dynamic levels than those chosen at the outset of “The Fairy Garden”, the transformation when the sound finally opens out would have been more spellbinding.

The sea as imagined by Debussy in La Mer remains recognisably European. No signs of the Roaring Forties or the Bermuda Triangle, for instance. But anybody who has traversed the Bay of Biscay during a winter gale knows how terrifying this stretch of water can be. When the final movement initially bares its teeth there could have been a greater sense of menace from the lower strings, though the titanic timpani contributions conjured up a sense of towering waves. One feature of Gardner’s reading was the finely calibrated dynamics in the opening movement, with specks of vibrant orchestral colour such as the shivers of anticipation in the strings. Throughout there was plenty of spray, foam and a salty tang in the air. Ultimately, however, this was an impressionistic, episodic interpretation rather than one in which the sea surged and heaved, only to recede inexorably.

This entire evening had been billed in advance by the LPO’s marketing term as “The Great Escape”. Was it that? Escapees keen to put distance between themselves and all current uncertainties might have thought so. But a word of warning: garder le meilleur pour la fin. The forces of law and order are still in hot pursuit…