The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's programme of Ravel, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns was not the first – nor will it be the last – all-French concert in the current season, which is dedicated to the repertoire on which its Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit has built his renown. The mixed programme on offer gave the audience an opportunity to hear the RPO alone at its sparkling best (Valse nobles et sentimentales); as accompaniment to a formidable mezzo in Susan Graham (Les nuits d'été); and as bed-fellow with the Royal Festival Hall's newly refurbished organ.

Charles Dutoit © Chris Lee
Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee

Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales were so titled in an homage to Franz Schubert, who himself had composed collections of twelve Valses Nobles, and thirty-four Valses Sentimentales. Beyond that, there is little to compare the composers' respective bodies of works: Ravel's collection – in which the noble and sentimental waltzes are not distinguished – numbers just eight movements, and whilst Schubert's collections evoke little imagery, Ravel's are (unsurprisingly) highly impressionistic. If the RPO seemed tentative in the first waltz (Moderé – très franc), from the second onwards we were transported gloriously through shaded glens, across the glistening sea, and through flowering meadows. The flute solo in the second movement (Assez lent – avec un expression intense) was deliciously carefree, and the muted sections in the third movement (Modéré) were rich, pushing nicely onward to the more animated fourth movement. Whilst Ravel's writing does much to bring out the playful nature of the Valses, Dutoit's impeccable attention to detail really brought the impressionism to life, most particularly in the ecstatic seventh movement (Moins vif).

Berlioz's Les nuits d'été is a song cycle that is not (for me, in any case) the easiest with which to get to grips. The music somehow seems too intimate for a large-scale orchestral arrangement, having originally been composed for piano and soloist(s), and the impressionism is put across inconsistently – there are moments, such as "De Profundis" in the opening “Villanelle”, which are rendered comically obviously in musical terms, whereas others are more subtly evocative. Written at a time when Berlioz's marriage to Harriet Smithson was waning, his ordering of Théophile Gautier's poems makes a lot of sense: the first movement is positively idyllic, talking of bucolic strolls and a couple happily in love, but the poems then move through denial to lamenting, death, and, ultimately, a life beyond in “L'île inconnue”. There was plenty to admire in this performance, though.

Susan Graham © Benjamin Ealovega
Susan Graham
© Benjamin Ealovega

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham's delivery was unapologetic and deeply engaging. A finely struck balance between soloist and orchestra made it easy to listen to and to follow the contours of this emotionally fraught song cycle. “Le spectre de la rose” was exceptionally beautiful; the dynamics were delicately rendered and neither went over the top, nor were they unwarrantedly lacking in the pianissimo sections. In “Absence”, Graham's tailing off on "reviens, reviens!" conveyed the realisation that these cries would not prove fruitful, whilst both orchestra and soloist conveyed generously the idyllic, yet bittersweet imagery of the final “L'île inconnue”.

Saint-Saëns' Symphony no. 3 in C minor is familiar to many as the theme tune to the film Babe, and it was wonderful to see the RPO perform a piece that had originally been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony employs thematic transfigurations and developments that echo the methods of his dear friend Franz Liszt, to whom the piece is dedicated, and it is these that keep the momentum building throughout the piece – at least, that is, until that moment in the second movement that opens the maestoso section. The power of the Royal Festival Hall's newly restored organ on the huge, C major chord seemed to come unexpectedly to a majority of concert-goers, if their collective jolting was anything to go by. It is a beast of an instrument, but nonetheless one for which this piece could have been made – as much as it is good for loud showpieces, organist Stephen Disley proved that it is also capable of blending in and becoming, as Saint-Saëns intended, an orchestral instrument. Whilst the organist garnered a standing ovation from the audience, the pianists also deserve honourable mention. It would not have been a successful performance without Dutoit's coaxing a highly responsive string section time and time again to build up momentum and then snatch it away. Without a doubt, this was the most exciting live performance of the symphony I have heard – it certainly beat having to listen to it with three helium-fuelled mice crooning If I had words over the top!

****1