What a pleasure it was to see the effervescent Marc Minkowski conducting a programme of 20th-century French music with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was certainly a lively and well-thought-out concert, with Minkowski bringing all the clarity and detailed awareness of colour that he has bought to his performances of early music.

Marc Minkowski © Marco Borggreve
Marc Minkowski
© Marco Borggreve

The concert kicked off with the BBC Singers giving a thoroughly convincing and perceptive performance of Figure humaine by Poulenc. This wonderful choral song cycle is surely one of the most important pieces of a cappella writing since the Renaissance. Its eight settings of the delicate poems of Paul Éluard have a wonderful range of moods, culminating in the final two songs “La menace sous le ciel rouge” and the climactic “Liberté”. Minkowski's love for the work was palpable and with his guidance the BBC Singers found a high level of rhythmic buoyancy and intensity in the piece.

Next up, after a major reshuffling of the stage, was Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto in D minor with soloists David Kadouch and Guillaume Vincent. In this work we see the light hearted and witty Poulenc. He throws everything but the kitchen sink into the concoction and by sheer force of charm the concerto survives the onslaught to become one of the most successful and loved of all his orchestral works.

The two soloists proved to be perfectly in tune with the varied sound world of the first movement; furious and brilliant when they needed to be and meltingly sentimental when the irresistible tunes appear from nowhere. The mock-Mozart slow movement had just the right balance of genuine feeling and gentle parody, the soloists, at times, almost seeming to caress each other in their exchanges of phrases and good humour. In the riotous finale a clearer rondo structure carries the music forward and gave the soloists their virtuoso moments. A memorable and very well received performance it was too.

After the interval a rare complete performance of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose) ballet produced some delicate and sophisticated playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Minkowski drew out a warmth of feeling which made this sometimes illusive, if exquisitely orchestrated work, into a moving experience. His insistence on a slowish tempo throughout emphasised the childlike simplicity of the writing as well as the refinement of the orchestration. The final dance “Le jardin féerique” opened out wonderfully and found just the right of level of wide-eyed ecstasy in the final bars.

After the rarified atmosphere of Ma mère l’oye, it came as something of a shock to be thrust into the red-blooded sound world of Albert Roussel’s Symphony No. 3 in G minor from 1930. With an orchestra twice the size of that for the Ravel and heavy on the brass, the playful brutality of the opening Allegro Vivo certainly brought the audience back down to earth in an invigorating way. This emphatic movement, with its Stravinskian rhythms and Hindemithian orchestration, must be one of the most concise and satisfying first movements in the 20th-century repertoire. The long slow movement is a restless affair, rarely sticking to its Adagio tempo marking. Three increasingly passionate climaxes punctuate the movement and underline the point that this is the emotional heart of the whole piece. The jazz-inspired scherzo introduces a lighter mood not a million miles away from the world of Poulenc, if somewhat better behaved. The finale extends this febrile mood, adding a sense of danger into the mix. In a remarkably short time the symphony comes to a thrilling end when emphatic statements of the simple five note motto theme that finds its way into all the movements.

And all this was tremendously brought to life by Minkowski and the BBC SO. Any suggestion of heaviness in the orchestration was dispelled by careful balancing, with brass held back until they needed to be brazen and a very large complement of strings given full reign, particularly in the slow movement. The sense of abandon in the last two movements was very exciting, held together by Minkowski with some very apt pointing of rhythms and gradations of climaxes. It was wonderful to hear this stunning symphony, a truly neglected masterpiece and a personal favourite of mine, alive and kicking in a very rare London performance. Let’s ditch a few performances of Shostakovich, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky, and give works like this a chance to find the place they deserve in the repertoire.

*****