A musically romantic and impressionist summer in France in the 19th century provided the perfect platform to link the anniversary years of Debussy and Berlioz. This programme was also a showcase for Principal Flute Alison Mitchell, heading off to pastures new after 15 years with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which welcomed back their featured artist this season, the ebullient oboist and conductor François Leleux.

Carolyn Sampson
© Marco Borggreve

Charles Gounod submitted his Petite Symphonie for nine of the finest wind players in Paris to play, performed here with style led by Leleux’s sweet toned oboe. The extraordinary sound world was compelling as pairs of bassoons and horns provided a sassy rich backing to the light and airy solo and ensemble work from the two oboes and flute, two cheeky clarinets positively dancing in the faster movements. The slower Andante with an enchanting dreamy flute solo gave way to a lively Scherzo, the players evoking a bandstand in a Parisian park on a summer’s evening. A strong bright Finale brought fine playing from all as notes and phrases passed across the group were underpinned with sonorous bass notes from the bassoons delivered with an exciting hint of percussive rattle.

Harpist Eleanor Hudson joined the strings in a glowing performance of Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, a piece written for a new revolutionary – but ultimately unwieldy – chromatic harp, an instrument quietly abandoned. Debussy’s music was elegant, Hudson’s performance ranging from gloriously flowing to more mysterious backed by Leleux’s silken strings. A quirky ponderous waltz became a stately dance with a gorgeous flourish from the harp, all over too soon in a quick finish.

Debussy’s charming Petite Suite of four vignettes was originally written for four piano hands, here adapted for chamber orchestra by Henri Büsser. En bateau gently rippled with a bright flute solo full of sunshine while the Cortège sounded rather lively, even majestic. An elegant Menuet featuring some stunning ensemble woodwind was followed by an exuberant Ballet with lively percussion, Leleux picking the music up to a whirling tempo.

Incanto, a lively 2001 composition from Eric Tanguy, provided a brash, wild contrast to the more tender, sustained and reflective first half. Another side of French repertoire, this angular rhythmic piece pulsed, fizzing with energy and trumpet fanfares. Leléux’s conducting matched the spirit of the piece, at one point both hands outstretched in front of him pointing at the central cellos for their big moment before the colourful riot burst out again, ending with energetic exuberant excitement.

The orchestra was joined by soprano Carolyn Sampson for Berlioz’s Les Nuits d'é, a suite of six charmingly beautiful but melancholy songs based on poems by Théophile Gautier. Sampson gave a direct heartfelt and engaging performance, at her best when her warm voice opened out as in the middle verse of Le Spectre de la rose, a shining soul from Paradise. The individuality of the songs with their beguiling freeform phrasing demands a strong partnership between conductor and singer. Leleux took his cues from the soloist accurately and drew shimmering colours from the orchestra, perhaps occasionally overwhelming Sampson’s lower register in the quieter passages which needed slightly more animation from the singer, but her final soft dying sighs in the heartbreaking Sur les lagunes were deeply moving.