An intoxicating whiff of Gallic incense wreathed the Royal Festival Hall last night as the “Pull Out All The Stops” festival to celebrate the restoration of its organ yielded not one, but two French works featuring the “King of Instruments”. Poulenc’s suave, riotously quirky Organ Concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 framed a performance of Berlioz’s headily perfumed song cycle Les nuits d’été. This trio of works requires a variegated orchestral palette – thankfully, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a master-painter and drew a rich spectrum of colours from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to decorate each of these scores in a distinctive way.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve | Askonas Holt
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve | Askonas Holt

The Festival Hall Harrison organ is celebrating its 60th birthday, newly refurbished and in quite magnificent sound. James O’Donnell, usually found in the environs of Westminster Abbey, was the evening’s soloist and relished the colours of every one of the 7,866 pipes available to his fingertips and feet at the console. The sheer power of the instrument was felt right from the imposing opening chords in Poulenc’s concerto, pinning you back in your seat with a jolt. Few works convey the “half monk, half rascal” description of its composer so aptly. The prevailing mood shifts dramatically from “gothic horror” to bittersweet melancholy to quirky, tongue-in-cheek wit. Nézet-Séguin handled these gear changes slickly, with ultra-precise whips and flicks of his baton. O’Donnell caught each mood perfectly, relishing the witty registrations for the more madcap moments.

If Sarah Connolly’s performance of Les nuits d’été was slightly underwhelming, it’s probably due to the ridiculously high expectations I place on her. Berlioz’s exquisite setting of six poems by Théophile Gautier is a difficult cycle to bring off successfully. Its original 1841 incarnation was for tenor or mezzo and piano. Two years later, Berlioz orchestrated the fourth song “Absence” for Marie Recio, but didn’t orchestrate the rest of the cycle until 1856, changing the keys of “Le spectre de la rose” (from D major to a more mezzo-friendly B major) and “Sur les lagunes” (from G minor to F minor). Even in that form, it’s doubtful whether Berlioz ever conceived his cycle being performed by one singer. Connolly’s performance had a carefully calculated, cool air; notes were perfectly placed and weighted, but I didn’t always get a clear image of who the characters really were.

The slower numbers suited her best. “Sur les lagunes” allowed her to display low notes of burnt umber, echoed by the clarinets, while the resignation in the final lines of “Absence” was affectingly caught. She was well supported by Nézet-Séguin, the leisurely introduction to “Le spectre de la rose” tenderly ushered in by the LPO strings, providing a velvet cushion of sound for Connolly to rest upon. Berlioz’s intertwining of vocal and string lines in this song is magical. As the rose, plucked by the girl to wear to the ball, expires ecstatically by her bedside, the line “J’arrive du paradis” – the acid test of this cycle for me – produced the requisite spine tingles. However, the outer songs were less successful. Nézet-Séguin’s initial tempo for “Villanelle” was a little cautious and Connolly’s response lacked verdant expectation, as spring ushers winter out of the way. I also missed the skittish playfulness of the barcarolle “L’île inconnue”, which closes the cycle.

Although dubbed the “Organ Symphony”, the instrument doesn’t have a solo role in Saint-Saëns’ iconic work; indeed, it is silent for about half its duration. As such, it shouldn’t dominate proceedings, but blend in, much as the piano does later on. Nézet-Séguin set a bustling, brisk pace at the start, a sense of agitation palpable. Lightly sprung rhythms and crisp string playing were to the fore. O’Donnell’s contributions to the latter half of the first movement were full of glowing autumnal hues, delicately daubed onto the orchestral canvas, the LPO’s woodwinds adding piquant flecks of light.

The opening of the second movement lacked much sense of moderato, bursting in with the animated energy of a bruising scherzo. Chattering woodwinds and splashes of piano introduced the secondary theme as spirits remained high. With O’Donnell’s mighty organ entry, the mood shifted to one of stately grandeur. There was no holding back from O’Donnell, who delivered powerful punches, but Nézet-Séguin and the LPO brass retaliated, ensuring the organ didn’t deliver a knockout blow. The final peroration drew a huge ovation, before the last note had resounded through the hall – not just a case of “pulling out the stops”, but also “no holds barred”.