This was the showpiece concert of this year’s City of London Festival and took place in the spectacular surroundings of St Paul’s Cathedral. Three key French composers were featured, concluding with well-known 3rd Symphony of Saint-Saëns. The first performance of this work was conducted by Saint-Saëns in London in 1886 in the long-since demolished St James’s Hall. It is popularly known as the Organ Symphony or Symphony for Orchestra and Organ, but both titles are misleading. Saint-Saëns described it as a Symphony for Orchestra “with” organ, which is a far more accurate description of the role of the organ. I don’t want any organists to lose out their star moment (or on soloist’s fees) but, with all due respect to Dame Gillian (one of the finest organists of her generation) the organ is only heard for a relatively short time (and not at all for the first ten minutes), and it is really quite a straightforward score to play. The piano parts, for example, are far more virtuosic. But the main contribution of the organ is the sheer range and volume of sound that it can produce. The work explores both extremes of that spectrum, from the low, quiet and growly to the frankly bombastic. It certainly made itself felt in this thrilling performance, conducted with vigour and panache by Simone Young, a conductor born in Australia of Irish/Croatian parents, and currently director of the Hamburg Philharmonic and State Opera. She relished the energetic juddering of the main theme and the surging power of the work. Gillian Weir demonstrated her mastery of registration and the difficult task of keeping the organ in time with the orchestra, particularly when the player is seated at a console a long way away from the organ itself – in this case, with the entire orchestra and a large choir in between player and organ. It was lovely watching the audience reaction to the three massive organ chords at the beginning of the final section – although only marked ‘f’ in the score, they are always played ‘fff’ and are one of music’s most dramatic moments.

© Robert Piwko / City of London Festival
© Robert Piwko / City of London Festival

The real organ virtuosity came at the start of the concert, with the two solo organ works by Messiaen from his Messe de la Penteôte, starting quietly with Les Oiseaux et les Sources (The Birds and the Springs), one of Messiaen’s most evocative and incense-laden works, full of his trademark birdsong and lush chord sequences that just wafted around St Paul’s. The piece finishes with the lowest note on the organ, while a treble solo arches upwards to end on one of the highest sounds possible on the organ. The second of the two solo works was Le vent de L'Esprit, a thrillingly exuberant outpouring of sheer joy, again featuring birdsong, in this case “an ecstatic chorus of larks”. The central section has an almost primal feel to it, something that also featured in Poulenc’s Gloria, a spirited work with a soft centre.

Poulenc builds this work on a series of short melodic or often punchy rhythmic fragments, and many of the sections are also short. But, as a whole, it is a work of real drama, centred around a gorgeous Domine Deus, with a prominent soprano solo. Anna Leese excelled in this role, the slight edge-tone to her voice being just what was needed to project into this vast acoustic. Simone Young took no prisoners when it came to setting speeds, in the Poulenc and Saint-Saëns, allowing the music to fill the space without over-exaggerating articulation or speeds to compensate, making for a thrilling performance.