Paris in the springtime: this week, I’ve been greeted by cold winds, driving rain and even a flurry of snow. Tonight, courtesy of Debussy’s Printemps, something a little more seasonal raised the temperature. Chausson brought some party spirit, but for sheer Parisian style – and a touch of naughtiness – it was Francis Poulenc who dominated this stylish affair from the Orchestre National de France under Fabien Gabel, launching the Maison de la Radio’s four day festival ‘À la française’. The highlight was a knockout performance of Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, featuring the dapper Olivier Latry as soloist.

Olivier Latry, Fabien Gabel and the ONF © Mark Pullinger
Olivier Latry, Fabien Gabel and the ONF
© Mark Pullinger
Latry has probably performed the Poulenc dozens of times, either from the organ loft of Notre Dame (where he has held one of the four titulaires des grands orgues posts since 1985) or from consoles at the back of various concert platforms. I wonder how often he’s performed it from the front of the stage! The Maison de la Radio – a Camembert shaped building itself refurbished only a couple of years ago – boasts a brand new Gerhard Grenzing organ, inaugurated last December. Latry performed on a portable console consisting of four keyboards of 61 notes (bone and ebony) and 32 oak pedal steps. I often feel a sense of disconnect from soloists in organ concertos, performing from afar – or even completely out of sight – but not so here. From my position, I had a clear view of Latry’s playing. Latry himself was in the perfect position to see the conductor (no rear view mirror required) and could make direct eye contact with the timpanist across the strings. These factors contributed to pinpoint ensemble in a terrific performance.

The critic Claude Rostand’s description of Poulenc as “half monk, half rascal” was never more appropriate than in the Organ Concerto, which veers wildly from pulpit to fairground. With coppery lighting on its 5320 pipes, the Maison’s organ is like an animal. Wooden panels open and close to control dynamics, as if drawing slow breaths. In the concerto's thunderous opening, the instrument roared, but the nasal, reedy tones for the pious ‘high church’ solo sections were as gentle as a mouse. Latry brought plenty of Gallic wit to the wicked finale.

A variety of French flavours were on the menu in this programme. It opened with Chausson’s Soir de fête, a symphonic poem from 1897 which evokes a festive spirit but also that satisfying atmosphere of contentment after a good party has drawn to its close. Gabel, displaying vast expanses of cuff, conducted with big, fluid gestures, drawing bold, punchy playing from the ONF. Boisterous percussion offered glimpses of fiesta, but it was the quieter sections – a noble horn and a crepuscular clarinet theme – that were most memorable.

Debussy’s Printemps – composed at the Villa Medici in 1887 after he had won the Prix de Rome – was originally scored for orchestra and wordless chorus, but the manuscript was lost. In 1912 Henri Büsser orchestrated it – under Debussy's supervision – from the only existing source, a reduction for chorus and piano duet. If you know Büsser’s orchestration of Debussy’s Petite Suite, it has familiar touches – triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbal – plus rippling piano four hands. Gabel made much of the atmospheric first movement, which sees spring gently unfurling, before the ONF strutted its way through the more energetic finale.

More Poulenc closed the programme. Les Animaux modèles is a ballet based on Jean de la Fontaine’s fables. It is a charming score, from the lyrical “The grasshopper and the ant” to an argumentative “Battle between two roosters”. Poulenc wears his heart on his sleeve in the gorgeous theme which opens “The amorous lion”, lavishly played by the ONF’s 59 strings, before “The middle-aged man and his two mistresses” strutted busily down the boulevards. Très français.