Concluding the Philharmonia Orchestra’s City of Light: Paris 1900–1950 season, this concert took a full Royal Festival Hall auditorium (and BBC Radio 3 listeners) on a journey from solo instrument to full orchestra plus trimmings in all their glory. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s direction, this proved to be a most memorable evening.

By 1900, Paris was in the throes of La Belle Époque, whence flowed countless new streams of creativity and cultural learning in the arts. Departure from the realism favoured by the Academie des Beaux-Arts was no longer considered avant-garde, but was now widely accepted as a ‘legitimate’ form of expression.

The Symbolist literary movement and music that might be described as ‘Impressionist’ fell into this departure from the old ways. Claude Debussy could well be seen as being in the midst of it all, often choosing Symbolist texts as libretti or lyrics to underpin his compositions, and otherwise depicting in his music an effect, rather than a thing. The concert began with Debussy’s Syrinx, which brought together the ancient (a Greek myth: Syrinx was a nymph who, on being pursued by Pan, was turned into a hollow reed which Pan cut and used as a flute), and innovation – this was one of the first pieces written for solo modern flute.

The Philharmonia’s principal flautist, Samuel Coles stood centre-stage, as though to say that the piece should not be treated as a mere amuse-bouche. Whilst there was plenty of emotion visible in Coles’s body language, and there was much sensitive dynamic variation, I occasionally felt that there was an energy to his playing that skipped over the wistful nature of the piece (and the myth).

A second piece of Debussy followed in the form of his genre-bending cantata La damoiselle élue. Taking its title from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The blessed damozel, the piece represents Debussy’s association with the literary Symbolists, as well as a Wagnerian approach to myth. Scored for orchestra and female singers, La damoiselle élue recounts a woman who, “from the gold bar of heaven”, sees her lover and wishes for the fulfilment of love in death. Debussy employs harmonies and textures that are characteristically his own, but there is an air of Wagner about his orchestration (including the use of female singers). The ladies of the Philharmonia Voices, expertly prepared by Aidan Oliver, provided an ethereal, intricately balanced sound, whilst mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany utilised her rich, nuanced voice to stunning effect as Une récitante. As La damoiselle, Sophie Bevan’s radiant, glorious soprano befitted the glimmering orchestral sound elicited Salonen. 

An emotionally fulfilling first half could not, however, prepare anyone for the intensity of Messiaen’s “hymn to joy”, his Turangalîla-symphonie. The composer derived the title from two Sanskrit words: turanga (the movement of time), and lîla (signifying life and creation). Like Debussy, Messiaen acknowledges the influence of Wagner in this piece, in that he references the Tristan myth and the notion of love in death through a combination of brooding, terrifying, and then outrightly joyous movements. At around 75 minutes long, it is quite extraordinarily varied – the ten movements each have a distinctive style and purpose – and demands total focus from the entire orchestra through its relentless drive through tranquillity, ecstasy, darkness, and dissonance. For this same reason, it is emotionally draining on the listener. Perhaps seeing it live compounds this fact: witnessing the effort put in by the orchestra in keeping the piece not only going, but going with great precision, was a sight to behold. Salonen coaxed a great range of characters from the orchestra; each movement was an utter delight for its own reasons. Of particular note was the fifth movement, “Joie du sang des étoiles”, in which the orchestra brought out the euphoric, passionate, quasi-bacchanalian dance of the stars before a piano cadenza lead back to the crashing chords of the ‘statue’ theme. 

Perhaps most famous for its use of the ondes Martenot, here deftly played by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, Turangalîla also employs solo piano and an array of other percussion instruments, including a celeste and keyed glockenspiel. With all these instruments lined up on stage, their playing together was redolent of a row of office workers typing away furiously and exactly in sync. But far from undertaking dull and routine activity, these percussionists were absorbed in the music – that much was obvious, even from afar. Nobody in the auditorium could miss the puissance of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s playing, though; his was an astonishing performance of other-worldly vitality. Both he and Hartmann-Claverie performed from memory, and flawlessly. Aimard also seemed to give and take cues, whether to or from Salonen or various sections of the orchestra; the level of concentration was deeply intense and palpable. 

This second half was simply an extraordinary finale to the Philharmonia’s season. My guest and I left barely able to string a sentence together, such was its impact on the listener. It is certainly a concert that will be etched on the mind for quite some time.