This London Philharmonic Orchestra programme was called “Seascapes and Visions”, so it made sense to include Debussy’s La Mer and, for that second noun, almost any piece of Messiaen, who seems neglected in the concert hall, if not in piano recital or organ loft. Even his pupil and champion, Pierre Boulez, had misgivings, once mischievously offering three barriers to appreciation; religion, birdsong and – extra scorn – the ondes Martenot. No ondes in Les Offrandes oubliées but those “ forgotten offerings” include Christ’s self-sacrifice. And 1930 was before the birdsong period, though the work itself is a rara avis.

Klaus Mäkelä
© Mathias Benguigui | Pasco and Co

A 12-minute work for standard orchestra, with a clear three-part form, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played it as if it was standard repertory, with virtuoso flair in the lively middle section. The outer, meditative passages were played with simple dedication, especially by the LPO strings, whose pure intonation glowed with spirituality. One would not have guessed the metrical intricacy from Klaus Mäkelä’s conducting – the opening four bars are in 10/8, 11/8, 9/8 and 7/8 – as he focussed on the serene flow of music marked profondément triste. Even Boulez might have bowed his head.

Nothing maritime or visionary about Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto, but an opportunity to hear Truls Mørk play a repertoire work for his instrument. A single orchestral chord launches the first subject, a fast downward flurry for the soloist, which was less than precise here. But once into the body of this first movement, conductor and soloist both relished its lyrical invention. The concerto is another tripartite work played continuously, and the middle movement always seems a surprise – a courtly minuet straight from the age of Lully. Here its galanterie was a touch staid, yet played with such affection. Mørk’s playing of the finale was arresting indeed, the virtuosity exciting, the expansively phrased second subject drenched in golden tone, his final solo emphatically crowd-pleasing.

LPO bassoons
© Mark Allan

Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was initially meant for another triptych, its two successor pieces never composed. Like Mallarmé’s poem, the music aims to suggest more than it states, and requires perfect balance, natural flow and seamless transitions. That was largely achieved by Mäkelä and the LPO, with Charlotte Ashton's fine opening flute solo breathing the work into life, even at a rather steady tempo. Not everyone’s entry was quite as poised as that, though the principal oboe contributions captured the ear every time. The climax was potent enough, but somehow by the end languor was eclipsed by lassitude. Time for a bracing burst of sea air and another triptych.

Debussy’s La Mer was subtitled “Three Symphonic Sketches” and interpretations often favour either the verb or the adjective, impressionist sketches or symphonic rigour. Here was a 25-year old Finnish conductor with his first Sibelius cycle already recorded, so we could expect a grasp of structure. Not that picturesque detail was lacking. In the first movement the theme for twelve cellos in four parts reminded us why not every work can be scaled down in a pandemic. The central Play of the Waves became a quasi-scherzo, but much flickering instrumental by-play came through before the theme in three-time danced its way to the climax. The outer movements both made gripping progress to tremendous climaxes, the first – From Dawn to Midday on the Sea - dazzled like the midday sun above a cloudless ocean. The finale’s closing blaze was even more impressive, Mäkelä’s approach ideally judged, the portentous brass chorale balanced perfectly against the surrounding tumult.


Many thanks to eagle-eyed Bachtrack reviewer Alexander Hall for spotting that Charlotte Ashton was, in fact, the principal flautist last night and not Juliette Bausor. The review has been amended and the second photo substituted.

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