Last Friday, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and its musical director Myung-Whun Chung offered a wonderful panorama of French music: Claude Debussy’s impressionism, Olivier Messiaen’s abstraction and Camille Saint-Saëns’ romanticism. For the Salle Pleyel audience, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony in C minor was no discovery, as it had been played twice already by the Orchestre de Paris since the beginning of this season – but Debussy’s Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra and Messiaen’s The Ascension are rarely heard, even with French orchestras. What a pity for these two delicate, colorful pieces!

Debussy’s Rhapsody is a very beautiful score. The composer uses all the sonorities and all the possibilities of the instrument to create an expressive melodic line, sometimes poetic and sometimes virtuosic. He lets the clarinet often dialog with the whole ensemble or with solo instruments, showing its ability in the piano as well as in the forte. The young soloist Nicolas Baldeyrou, who is also a first clarinettist with the orchestra, built a rich interpretation with his sensitivity and virtuosity. Demonstrating his huge talent, he took real advantage of the colorful orchestral accompaniment, well balanced by Chung.

Prolonging the atmosphere of the Debussy, Messiaen’s The Ascension is bursting with colors, harmonies, pictures and rhythms. In 1932, more than 20 years after the Rhapsody was composed, the world had changed, and so had its codes and modes. Already distant from impressionism, The Ascension is still tinged with a unique, French orchestral color. Precise details in the orchestration, various nuances, modal sonorities: Messiaen writes in a purely French symphonic tradition, directly inspired by Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Fauré, but also by Stravinsky, the most French among the Russian composers. Messiaen also writes as an organist, playing with orchestral timbres as he plays with organ stops.

Myung-Whun Chung exploited these timbres well, letting different volumes emerge from the orchestral mass. An impressive brass chorale opens the whole piece, illustrating “The majesty of Christ demanding its glory of the Father”, and demonstrating the wonderful sonorities of the OPRF trumpet desk. The whole orchestra joins in “Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven”, calling to mind Debussy’s sonorities and Gregorian chant with its intimate orchestration, before a more symphonic “Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal”, rather evoking Franck and a mightier post-romanticism. The piece ends with “Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father”, a final ascension among the lone strings, with a large rise to the treble. But despite the orchestral energy and the precision of the score, the whole piece lacked nuance. The OPRF musical director did not seem to seek any further musical relief than the harmonies written by the composer, and the intense last movement was actually too monotonous to take us away to heaven.

After the pause, we went back to French music from a third point of view: Camille Saint-Saëns’ late Romanticism. He composed his Third Symphony in 1886, ingeniously combining formal classicism and new writing methods. He chose to add a piano and an organ to the symphonic orchestra, creating an unusual concertante style: no organ concerto here, but no pure symphony either; the organ accompanies the orchestra without being a part of it. The recurrent cyclical theme, reminiscent of the Gregorian Dies irae, fascinates the audience from the beginning to the triumphal end, through its multiple transformations (in orchestration, tempo, details), from the first, thrilling string ride to the final, explosive organ chord.

But although Chung conducted the symphony by heart, as he had done with the Messiaen, he seemed to be too far from the work. The whole piece was too fast, and despite the musicians’ good will, we missed details in this teeming score – the woodwinds staccato and double bass pizzicato in the first Allegro, the piano entry and the horn/bassoon counterpoint in the Scherzo... The large string orchestra (ten double basses) and the conductor’s choices almost deprived us of the sweet, precious piano arpeggios in the Finale (evoking the same composer’s Aquarium), the organ meditative song in the Adagio, and even its imposing chords at the very end, lost amid the gigantic orchestral sound. Without nuances, without details, this refined symphony was played like Tchaikovsky – unfortunately, we could have loved such energy in Tchaikovsky, but we missed more subtlety in Saint-Saëns. Nevertheless, these choices found some relevance in the last coda, where this impetuous tempo stirred the whole concert hall with the orchestral tutti and the last, unbridled chords.