It was just two days ago that Emmanuel Macron announced a relaxation of lockdown restrictions in France, meaning that from 19th May, audiences may return to theatres and concert halls. Yet here was the Orchestre de Paris, which has streamed from an empty Philharmonie for months, performing for an exclusive audience. Was this a pilot project to test safety protocols? None of the spectators were masked though. And many were naked! Otherwise, their behaviour was exemplary, utterly silent – not a single cough – and immobile to the point of inertia. This is unsurprising, as most were made of marble. 

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestre de Paris
© Mathias Benguigui, Pasco & Co

The orchestra had abandoned its usual Philharmonie haunt for a day trip to the Musée d’Orsay where Pablo Heras-Casado played the gallery guide. Literally. For what else would you perform in a building housing one of Paris’ great collections of art than Pictures at an Exhibition? Modest Mussorgsky’s opus has plenty of French connections beyond being orchestrated by Maurice Ravel: we visit the chattering marketplace of Limoges; the Paris Catacombs are only a few Métro stops along Line 4 from the d'Orsay; and the Tuileries Gardens are directly across the Seine. 

This stream wasn’t a case of plonking the orchestra among the sculptures in the Grand Nave and filming the playing, although that was largely how Ravel’s Boléro, which opened the programme, was treated. Camera shots lingered on Pradier’s Sappho bowing her head, or Cavelier’s Penelope dozing while the woodwinds took it in turns to weave their hypnotic solos. Antoine-Louis’ Seated Lion loomed over the shoulders of the double basses, while Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty raised her torch as if competing with the conductor. Heras-Casado, perhaps mindful of the nave’s cavernous acoustic, placed the two snare-drummers side by side rather than at opposite ends of the orchestral layout. Guillaume Cottet Dumoulin’s rakish trombone was the highlight among the many fine solos.

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts in the grand nave of the Musée d'Orsay
© Mathias Benguigui, Pasco & Co

Once we got to Pictures, though, we saw more of the d’Orsay’s treasures, joining Heras-Casado during Mussorgsky’s Promenades as he wandered through the galleries, musing thoughtfully. During the musical depictions of Viktor Hartmann’s artworks, camera direction returned to the orchestra. Highlights included Pascal Bonnet’s smoky alto saxophone in The Old Castle, a good, purposeful tread for Bydło, the ox cart, and glowering brass for Catacombs. Acoustics perhaps demanded that the quarrelling children in the Tuileries were rather well-behaved and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks a touch careful. Fast cuts between orchestra and marbles gave Limoges a livelier atmosphere than you’d surmise by just listening. Close miking ensured that The Hut on Fowls’ Legs (Baba-Yaga) did not become aural mush, but Heras-Casado had to stretch the rests in The Great Gate of Kiev to allow for the nave’s long reverberation to decay. If anything, it made for an even grander, more pompous finale.

Sabine Devieilhe
© Philharmonie de Paris

How odd, then, to tack Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques onto the end of the programme like an afterthought, with barely a pause for breath after Pictures? They were sung delectably – all eight minutes of them – by Sabine Devieilhe (dressed by Dior) with superb diction. Perhaps the video team felt it was their strongest card as the soprano was filmed wistfully viewing the Impressionist paintings whilst occasionally miming to her recorded self who was singing in the nave. Unlike the Mussorgsky, here the artworks were more deliberately chosen: during Là-bas, vers l'église, Devieilhe strolled past the series of Monets depicting Rouen Cathedral, while the light-hearted Tout gai! included the picnic scenes of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Devieilhe, after the closing credits, looked out across Paris from the d’Orsay’s rooftop, perhaps longing to hear the sound of real applause once again. Not long, Sabine, not long.

This performance was reviewed from the Oxymore video stream on the Philharmonie de Paris website